Kyle Bean for Fortune

Researchers use cell phone data to address problems in developing countries.

By Preetisha Sen
July 2, 2014

Cell phones have become ubiquitous even in the world’s poorest places. Now, researchers are using data collected by the devices to address third-world problems, according to a report provided exclusively to Fortune.

The report, produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in conjunction with strategy consulting firm Cartesian, argues that analyzing mobile data has the potential to improve the lives of the poor in many ways—from expanding access to banking services to tracking the spread of infectious diseases.

Nirant Gupta, an author of the  report, says research from Harvard and other large universities prompted the Gates Foundation to further analyze cell phone data in developing countries so that the findings could move from research to implementation.

“As we talked to researchers, we thought they were doing really interesting and exciting things,” he says.

Studying 10 developing countries across sub-Saharan African and Asia, the researchers found that many residents view cellular phones as a necessity, even cutting back on food purchases to pay their phone bills. Although more than 60% of people in the countries studied live on less than $2 per day, the majority of people there own cell phones. In Nigeria and Kenya, for example, 67% of adults own cell phones, while at least 58% do in India, Indonesia and Botswana. Even among people earning $1 a day or less, more than half own mobile phones in Botswana, Kenya and Nigeria.

With the influx of new data, the report suggests new applications for it, such as creating better disaster relief programs.  After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, several universities looked at data from cell phone towers and SIM cards to see where residents went after the quake hit. Instead of going to the closest “safe” zone, many survivors chose to go to locations where they had traveled to before.

Jake Kendall, another author of the report, said the data could also be used in tracking diseases, for instance. By watching the mobility patterns of cell phone users, researchers can better understand how diseases like malaria spread and aim relief efforts at specific areas.

Of course, mobile data collection raises issues of privacy. The report’s authors suggest that phone companies can scrub data of any personally identifiable information before releasing it to researchers.

The data has endless potential to improve conditions in the developing world, far beyond the ways outlined in the report, the authors say. “The real opportunity is to take these tools and apply them more broadly. That would be where you’d make a larger impact,” says Ed Naef, vice president of strategy consulting for Cartesian, and one of the report’s lead authors.

While the Gates Foundation has not yet announced projects that will implement the findings of the study, Gupta says that projects are in the works, including potential partnerships with the United Nations Global Pulse, a U.N. initiative to use Big Data for humanitarian purposes.

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