We are living in the age of big data. Due to the recent, and nearly ubiquitous adoption of mobile services around the world, we can track and analyze human mobility like never before. By simply going about our day, we generate massive amounts of ‘ambient data,’ and by identifying patterns in that data, analysts can make remarkably accurate predictions about who we are, who we know, where we go, where we have been and where we plan to go.
Private industry was quick to leverage these new technologies and restructure their businesses through data-driven decisions, but according to Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of the United Nation’s Global Pulse, the defining challenge of this decade will be for the public sector to learn how to tap into this new “unnatural resource.”
His solution: private industry should share the data they collect with the public sector, a notion he refers to as ‘data philanthropy.’ By providing access to their data, be it operational data or user-generated data scraped from social networking sites, Kirkpatrick believes corporations have the ability to make a significant difference – particularly in the developing world.
Despite having the desire to help, useful data is typically locked behind corporate firewalls. However, a growing number of public/private initiatives are paving the way for a new model of global development. The list below highlights some of the more innovative ways in which privately generated data is providing utility in the public sphere:
- Google Search Queries Track Spread of Flu: Before visiting a clinic, many flu sufferers visit websites for information about symptoms and remedies. Google Flu Trends use these search queries to estimate current flu activity around the world in near real-time.
- Mobile Calling Patterns Detect Outbreaks of Illness: Researchers at MIT have also found evidence that changes in mobile phone calling patterns can be used to detect outbreaks of illness ahead of conventional detection systems, which typically rely on reports from doctors.
- Triangulating Phone Signals to Map Disaster Diasporas: To show where people went following the earthquake and subsequent cholera epidemic in Haiti, researchers analyzed location data captured by Haiti’s biggest network operator, Digicel, and were able to chart population movements faster and more accurately than rescue workers on the ground.
- China Uses Location Data to Manage Population Growth: In the interests of traffic management, China is implementing a new system that monitors population flow by tracking mobile phones (a proxy for people) in order to spot when areas are becoming too congested with people or vehicles.
- Calling Patterns Determine Socioeconomic Status: A research team from Telefónica has demonstrated that calling patterns can be used to identify the socioeconomic level of a population, which in turn may be used to infer its access to housing, education, healthcare, and basic services such as water and electricity.