Not much good has come from the Ebola crisis, save this: It has raised awareness of the fact that we already have a weapon in our hands that could help fight such epidemics – our mobile phones.
There’s already evidence to show that the idea can work. Following the earthquake and cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010, for example, “call-data records” from mobile phones were used to track people’s movements, so allowing experts to “infer, with empirical data and in real-time, where people are, and how many, and where they are probably headed,” according to The Economist. That’s vital information in health crises, where epidemiologists need to know if people are moving into or out of highly infected areas.
The technique has been also been used to follow people’s movements in the wake of natural catastrophes, for example after the 2011 earthquake in Japan. And there’s growing interest in seeing how it could be used to track survivors of extreme weather events, such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, especially as climate change threatens to raise the frequency of such disasters.
But there’s a problem. Even if such tracking methods don’t involve eavesdropping on callers’ conversations, they do involve a breach of their privacy. And in the case of the Ebola outbreak, that seems to have been a major obstacle in preventing mobile operators from releasing their phone records.
There’s also the problem that for everyone involved – mobile operators, government regulators and researchers – this is still somewhat uncharted territory. There’s a general recognition that call-data records have potential to ease suffering during epidemics and after calamities but, as The Economist again notes, “the data are unlikely to be released without stronger leadership that brings together operators, regulators and researchers”.
Still, even if the Ebola crisis has highlighted what remains to be done, it’s impressive to see the ways in which mobiles are already being used to collect data in developing countries. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, according to the International Telecommunications Union, mobile-phone penetration now approaches 90% in developing countries (and 69% in Africa). This doesn’t mean that nine out of ten people have handsets. But even setting aside all those people and businesses with second or third phones, it’s clear that unprecedented numbers of people now have a device in their pocket that’s not just a phone but also a powerful little computer.
That’s potentially important for developing countries, many of which lack the infrastructure and personnel to compile adequate statistics. As the World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan has noted, widely cited poverty data for Africa for 2005 relies on robust statistics from just 39 of the continent’s countries, with only 11 able to supply comparable data for the same year.
These data holes make it difficult to measure progress and to identify priorities for development. In response, there have been growing calls for a “data revolution”, which would require action on a range of fronts, including greater investment in government statistical offices in developing countries and making better use of “Big Data” and innovative technologies, like mobile phones.
Encouragingly, there are signs that some of this is already happening. For example, an SMS-based survey in Tunisia investigated remittances, an area where hard facts are notoriously scarce and where estimates of how money migrants are sending back home are just that – estimates. It found that more than a quarter of remittances are sent back by hand, more than the total sent via Western Union. Insights like that could help to provide more accurate data on what is an important source of income in many developing countries.
Mobile phones are also being used to “crowd source” data on price changes, which, as Gillian Jones reports, can be used to “compile near real-time consumer price inflation data”. Local residents take photos of price tags in shops and markets and send them to a central data store. There, they are analysed to provide data on price changes as well as scarcities. Field agents are paid a few cents for each photo they send, but that can add up to an income of as much as $25 a month. And how are they paid? Over their phones, of course.
Global Call for Innovations: The Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21) has launched a global call for innovations to highlight organizational approaches and new technologies to help realise the data revolution. It is seeking case studies in crowd sourcing; data management; monitoring and reporting; open data; real-time data; remote sensing; research standards; visualization; skills development; and technical infrastructure.
Clean water, cold vaccines, cell phones = a simple way to save lives (OECD Insights blog)