Big data is watching you

Image of Gillian Tett

During the past few years, there has been one constant in my life. Wherever I have travelled, in America or anywhere else, I have carried a mobile phone. Usually, the device is so ubiquitous, I do not think about this habit at all (except when I lose my phone and panic).

But last week, I took part in a seminar organised by America’s Brookings Institution and Blum Center to discuss development and global economics. And now I am looking at that mobile phone with fresh eyes. For what became clear in discussions with aid workers, healthcare officials and US diplomats is that those oft-ignored mobile devices are not just changing the way the western world lives – but changing the lives of poor societies, too. This, in turn, has some intriguing potential to reshape parts of how the global development business is done.

These days, there are about 2.5 billion people in emerging markets countries who own a mobile phone. In places such as the Philippines, Mexico and South Africa, mobile phone coverage is nearly 100 per cent of the population, while in Uganda it is 85 per cent. That has not only left people better connected than before – which has big political and commercial implications – it has also made their movements, habits and ideas far more transparent. And that is significant, given that it has often been extremely hard to monitor poor societies in the past, particularly when they are scattered over large regions.

Consider what happened two-and-a-half years ago when the Haitian earthquake struck. The population scattered when the tremors hit, leaving aid agencies scrambling to work out where to send help. Traditionally, they could only have done this by flying over the affected areas, or travelling on the ground. But some researchers at Columbia University and the Karolinska Institute took a different tack: they started tracking the Sim cards inside mobile phones owned by Haitians, to work out where their owners were located or moving. That helped them to “accurately analyse the destination of more than 600,000 people who were displaced from Port au Prince”, as a UN report says. Then, when a cholera epidemic hit Haiti later, the same researchers tracked the Sim cards again, to put medicine in the correct locations – and prevent the disease from spreading.

Aid groups are not just tracking those physical phones; they are also starting to watch levels of mobile phone usage and patterns of bill payment, too. If this suddenly changes, it can indicate rising levels of economic distress, far more accurately than, say, GDP data. Inside the UN, the secretary general is now launching a project called Global Pulse to screen some of the 2.5 quintillion bytes of so-called “big data” being generated each day around the world, including on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. These sites are strikingly popular in parts of the emerging markets world; Indonesia, for example, has one of the most Twitter-addicted populations on the planet. Thus if the UN (or anyone else) spots a sudden increase in certain keywords, this can also provide an early warning of distress. References to food or ethnic strife, for example, may indicate the onset of famine or civil unrest. Similarly, medical researchers have learnt in the past couple of years that social media references to infection area are powerful early warning signal of epidemics – and more timely than official alerts from government doctors.

Such developments are – unsurprisingly – controversial. For just as the spread of social media has sparked a blizzard of concern about privacy in the west, some observers worry about the dark side of this technological revolution in the emerging markets as well. Not everyone who may want to track these data is benign. Facebook might allow activists to express opposition to governments (as in the Arab spring), but social media data could also help repressive governments monitor their populations. Companies can use the data, too; there are initiatives under way to use it to develop credit scores for the poor.

But such concerns are not deterring the UN. On the contrary, Robert Kirkpatrick, a former IT expert who now runs the UN’s Global Pulse unit, argues that we should treat those 2.5 quintillion bytes of big data as an international common good. He dreams of using these data to create the social media equivalent of “metereological stations”, which can test the winds of public debate, spot economic trends and predict looming problems in a beneficial way. Even if this idea sounds far-fetched, economists can already use this information to track how economies are developing in poor regions of the world with much more precision and timeliness than ever before.

That mobile phone in my pocket, in other words, does not just connect me to my friends. It is now part of a shared human experience – and database – that spans the globe, and which is growing in depth and power each day. And that has implications most of us have barely begun to understand. It is both a sobering and exciting thought, whether you are now sitting on a holiday beach, in a humdrum office – or anywhere else in the world.

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