Late May in Ottawa, I was among those interviewed for an article about big data.
Similarly, private telecom companies’ data on mobile phone traffic has become a crucial resource for researchers at the Sri Lanka-based think tank LIRNEasia, a long-time IDRC research partner. Using phone data that tracks traffic flows can be a low-cost means of helping governments decide where to invest in road and public transport upgrades, says LIRNEasia chair Rohan Samarajiva.
Since mobile phones are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka and phone traffic data is anonymous, studies are less likely to be biased in favour of the rich, he says. “We see that a mobile phone travels down a highway at a certain speed, but whether it’s rich or poor, travelling in a car or bus or motorbike — we don’t know.”
The value of mining these “big data” sets was shown to be equivalent to a large and expensive household survey on urban transportation conducted by the Sri Lankan government. Big data from phone companies could also be used to track the spread of disease, and thus guide the investment of health funds, Samarajiva adds.
Although these mobile operator data sets are not freely and openly available, LIRNEasia is exploring circumstances in which those could be released to researchers or the government, if they complied with strict privacy guidelines.