Today, our CEO Helani Galpaya was on a panel “Harnessing the power of convergence and big data for enterprise success” at a Sri Lankan summit called “Enterprise 2.0: building future ready enterprises” (full video of the panel session is available HERE). I thought some of the ideas she proposed about were worthy of further discussion. LIRNEasia is curently working on utilizing telecom network Transaction Generated Information (TGI) to conduct public interest research using big data.
One of her comments was about how companies are not fully appreciating the value of the data that they have. Often the value extracted is based on their direct interest as a result of their core business and there is little to no appreciation of the secondary benefits that could be derived from the data that they hold. In the context of our own work, this case is clear with the vast amounts of data that are being held by telecom operators, which we currently consider the only real big data on the poor that exists in developing countries such as Sri Lanka (I will talk to how we can increase the big data sources on another post later on). That is what we are trying to do in our own research i.e. extract secondary value (tangential to the core business interests) that is of public value.
But there are synergies that are not being exploited. As Helani mentioned, telecom operators are fearful of becoming “dumb pipes” something that the telcos are fully cognizant of. In fact Dumindra Ratnayaka, the CEO of Etisalat Lanka (and one of the panelists) echoed that sentiment by calling his company a services company and NOT just an infrastructure company. I think there is a real opportunity for the telecos in Sri Lanka to spin off a jointly owned company with access to data from all the telcos (something that Helani suggested in her comments as well). If I were to following this thought experiment through, this is how it could possibly work:
The jointly owned company could be a not-for-profit that has to pay license fees (structured as a percentage of revenue) to each of the telecos, for the the value that they extract from the combined data sets. What are the revenue streams for this entity? Actionable market intelligence for non-telecommunication companies e.g. developing credit scores that people can utilize to get loans from banks which is of high benefit to the poor with few documents and even lesser collateral (this isn’t novel, this is something already being tried in Brazil by a US based firm called Cignify). The possible reasons for trepidation on moving in this direction by the telcos could be two-fold: (a) preference for a go-it-alone-model in the hopes that it will give them a competitive advantage over their direct telecommunications competitors and (b) the regulatory grey area regarding such secondary use of data. I will speak to (b) and why that need not be a deterrent.
If lets say the hypothetical not-for-profit I propose above were to also provide public policy research insights, for example leveraging telecom network big data to help with urban development and transportation planning (amongst many more examples). The company is now in a much better situation to argue for more certainty in the regulations for being able to leverage the hidden value of their own data, since some of these are clearly of public interest. The question remains about customer consent for use of such data. I admit that is not easy, but telco’s accomplish their “human touch” by utilizing their networks to manage their vast number of customers with a very low administrative footprint (see our ongoing research on consumer relationship practices in the telco space). No reason that it cannot be leveraged to get consent for secondary use (WITH appropriate safeguards). I accept that people can by default say, “no I don’t to allow secondary use” but there are ways to overcome these behavioral aspects.
The point of this post was to get across the idea of leveraging telcom network data for combined public good as well to extract business opportunity. I will admit I leave out in this discussion some key things that will have a bearing on this discussion: privacy and how to deal with it, regulatory grey areas, the potential for “coopertition” versus competition in the telco space. But I will write more about each of these in subsequent posts.