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February 22, 2012

A Data Commons for the Developing World

Robert Gelber

There were more than 4.6 billion active cell phone subscriptions at the end of 2009 and developing nations had an estimated 57 percent subscriber rate. These numbers have been growing exponentially, leading to even more pervasive communications and consequently, data generation.

In addition to the more obvious benefits of increased connectivity, increasing usage of mobile technology in developing nations is providing a boost to the developing world in the form of insight from the data being generated by these devices.

The World Economic Forum, with help from health, financial and economic consulting groups, released a report discussing the potential of data generated by mobile devices in developing nations. Analysis of new and growing mobile data has the provided the ability to create effective reporting and would help forecast crises and generate policy-influencing reports to benefit those in the developing world and underserved areas.

Private and government agencies are also realizing the creation of a centralized “data commons” could benefit impoverished communities. The data created, would be used for the benefit of those supplying it while offering individual security and privacy. The “commons” would benefit the public and private sectors as well as individuals by incorporating data from all three main entities while providing some basic “checks and balances”.

As an example of the organization’s concept in action, the report discusses how this data can be used to track outbreaks or check for early signs of a drought. With this information, aid agencies could provide a faster and more focused response. The personal nature of the information also allows for a more individual-based analysis as digitization of financial transactions would allow a low-income individual to build a credit history

Individuals would provide crowdsourced information to receive better pricing and offers from the private sector as well as improved services from the public sector. The public sector would submit census, health, tax, expenditure and facility data to receive better service provisioning data and increased efficiencies. Finally, the private sector would add transaction data, spending and use information to retrieve more customer data to predict trends. To show that data privacy is a priority, the data store would have to adhere to a set of privacy standards and allow individuals and public sector groups the ability to “opt out”.

The report suggests that data generated by mobile devices, combined with public and private sector information in the data commons would be analyzed to allow for faster outbreak response, advanced forecasting of crises, improved mapping for service needs and prediction of supply and demand.

Several examples of these data commons and advanced analytics studies already exist. Last July Kenya launched an Open Data Portal, which contains the full 2009 census, over a decade of government spending, household income data and maps to schools and health facilities. The information is already being used to increase the transparency of the Kenyan government and get a better understanding of patterns in the Kenyan population as a whole.

The report states that a cycle between public and private entities is the key to enacting proper legislation, assist businesses targeting A call to action from governments development organizations and companies is made to ensure the data helps the people it has been generated by.