The expanding use of mobile phones throughout the developing world has brought many essential services (banking, healthcare and education) to previously disconnected populations. With the rapid growth in mobile communications, a torrent of transactional data, so called Big Data has emerged. Experts estimate it now reaches 2.5 quintillion bytes every day.

Careful analysis of this transactional data holds the promise to better understand mobile phone users living in extreme poverty. New services can be demand-based as the needs, living conditions and behaviours of those in extreme poverty can serve as the anchor points of innovation. Additionally, the public sector and civil society can offer more rapid response to conditions that threaten vulnerable populations, like droughts or famines, while the private sector hopes to offer more intuitive and user-friendly services.

In the area of agriculture and food security, analysing the patterns of mobile payments for agricultural products can enable more accurate predictions about food production trends, ensure the availability of proper crop storage, and result in more targeted financial services for smallholder farmers.

Mobile use patterns may also help governments and development organizations more quickly identify regions in distress. Early detection can help prevent families from leaving their land, further decreasing agricultural production.

Policy-makers, corporate leaders and development experts are becoming increasingly aware of the mutual benefits of creating a “data commons”, where this data can be transparently maintained and applied to the benefit of all. But a more concerted effort from all actors will be required to face the challenges of using this new data asset in an open, trusted and principled manner.

Governments can take the lead by setting policy and legal frameworks that protect individuals. Development organizations can continue supporting governments and demonstrating both the public good and the business value that data philanthropy can deliver. And the private sector can move faster to create mechanisms for the sharing of data that can benefit the public.

A number of organizations, including the World Bank, are already working to overcome the challenges and create the incentive structures needed for cross-sector cooperation. And several forward-thinking governments in the developing world are demonstrating how they can catalyse the development of this ecosystem by opening their own datasets and actively managing their dissemination and use.

Despite the magnitude of the challenges, the opportunities available are bigger, and the chance to better serve individuals in emerging markets should outweigh the risks and push this effort forward.

William Hoffman, Head, Telecommunications Industry, World Economic Forum USA

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