Leveraging mobile network big data for developmental policy

In 2015-17, LIRNEasia intends to extend its pioneering research based on mobile network big data (MNBD) to the modeling of the spread of infectious diseases and finding fine-grained and more frequent indicators of economic activity, in addition to further development of insights of relevance to urban and transport planning. MNBD has two characteristics of value in informing public policy in developing countries. First, it is the only “datafied” dataset that comes close to comprehensive coverage of the populations of these countries, making it possible to treat citizens and the mobile they tend to carry as the sensors that yield data as a by-product. Second, people carrying mobiles move across geographical space, producing data on their movement patterns. The exploratory work already completed, as well as the proposed research, capitalizes on these characteristics.

The central problem addressed by the proposed research is that of how to realize the potential of big data to better inform public policy and hopefully allow for greater use of evidence including data from experiments. In addition to the generation of actionable insights, the activities will develop capacity in local universities and among researchers and technical staff at relevant government organizations such as national statistical organizations and at the mobile operators. Given the broad range of government and other entities that can use the findings of MNBD research, significant attention will be paid to policy enlightenment among a broad range of decision makers. This will include safeguards to ensure responsible use of the data in the public interest. The proposed research will also be multi-country, extending our ongoing work in Sri Lanka to Bangladesh. This multi-country approach will enable comparative research and also help LIRNEasia identify the modalities that can be used by other South-based organizations to enter the big data for development field.

In short, the objectives include:

  • Generation of actionable knowledge in multiple domains such as urban and economic policy and management of infectious diseases from MNDB in specific country and city contexts;
  • Enlightenment of public and private sector decision-makers on the potential of MNBD and their responsible use in the public interest;
  • Development of capacity to effectively utilize big data among technical personnel in relevant government and private-sector organizations and among civil-society organizations.
  • Reduction of the transaction costs of obtaining the data from companies through the development of manuals, improvement of procedures, and the development of self-regulatory guidelines.