Is “big data” thinking based on developed economies appropriate for developing economies?

Posted on August 9, 2013  /  0 Comments

The New York Times carried a story on “big data for development” that featured Global Pulse, the UN initiative seeking to harness the potential of data to address development questions, much like what we are doing in our current research.

The efforts by Global Pulse and a growing collection of scientists at universities, companies and nonprofit groups have been given the label “Big Data for development.” It is a field of great opportunity and challenge. The goal, the scientists involved agree, is to bring real-time monitoring and prediction to development and aid programs. Projects and policies, they say, can move faster, adapt to changing circumstances and be more effective, helping to lift more communities out of poverty and even save lives.

Research by Global Pulse and other groups, for example, has found that analyzing Twitter messages can give an early warning of a spike in unemployment, price rises and disease. Such “digital smoke signals of distress,” Mr. Kirkpatrick said, usually come months before official statistics — and in many developing countries today, there are no reliable statistics.

I double-checked with my big data team. Yes, even we can get access to Twitter data. But analysis of tweets from a country where a significant percentage of the population tweets (not necessarily developed economies, since Jakarta is the largest contributor of tweets as a city) has to be distinguished from analysis of tweets from places where hardly anyone tweets.

Global Pulse has done the intelligent thing by locating its second office in Jakarta, But it should listen more to what comes out of Jakarta without trying to read the world from New York City. As I said in another context:

The prevalence of big data, or the subset that is a by-product of transactions also described as Transaction-Generated Information (TGI), differs in developed-market economies and in developing economies. Banking and modern retail, for example, are limited to the wealthy, urban populations. The only TGI that is of more-or-less universal scope is generated by telecom, principally mobile, networks. Depending on how far computerization has proceeded within government, migration data, pensions or welfare payments data may be available in computer-readable form.

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