Big data for social good

“Big Data” seems to be one of the new buzz words, often seen in conjunction with digital and artificial intelligence. But what is the hype, what is Big Data really, and what does it mean to a mobile operator?

First of all: What is Big Data?

Wherever we go, whatever we do – we leave traces; a virtual breadcrumb trail. In fact, we leave enormous volumes of it. This is what we call Big Data. The data can be structured or unstructured, but what is usually meant when we use the term “Big Data” today concerns the analysis and use of this data.

With more frequent use of technological products and services, we as consumers generate more data than ever before. These massive data sets can be used for many purposes, and as an aggregator of mobile phone data Telenor believes they should be used for good.

Keeping an eye on the mosquito

One example of how big data can be used for good is in quantifying and analysing human mobility patterns, and use this information to better understand how diseases like dengue spread. The disease is mosquito-borne, but it also spreads as humans travel. Knowing and understanding the travel patterns in a country thus becomes important to predict the location and timing of virus introductions, and improve preparedness in that region.

In one study from Pakistan, Telenor Group worked with Harvard and other academic partners, in utilising anonymised mobile call data of more than 30 million mobile subscribers during the 2013 dengue outbreak, to map the spread and timing of the epidemic. The output was illustrated with risk maps showing the epidemic risk, as below. These risk maps enable the Pakistani authorities to better predict the outbreak of dengue and other diseases spread by human mobility.

For the complete research article “Impact of human mobility on the emergence of dengue epidemics in Pakistan”, take a look at PNAS’ website.

Studying the effects of extreme weather events

A second example of Big Data from mobile use being put to good work comes from Bangladesh. As a country that experiences extreme weather events, like cyclones, swathes of Bangladesh’s population are often forced to migrate from affected areas. In one study where Telenor Group worked with Flowminder, ICCCD and UN University, data sets from approximately six million customers were analysed to gain an impression of how this migration occurs during and after extreme weather events. This Big Data research has the potential to supplement the standard survey-based research, which struggles to quantify this connection. You can read the full research article here.

Mapping the spread of malaria

Within the world of epidemiology, Telenor’s researchers found a new challenge in the study of the spread of multiple-drug-resistant (MDR) malaria. This type of malaria is particularly dangerous, as it poses a threat to the global efforts of controlling and eliminating the disease. Due to travel, MDR malaria has recently spread from Cambodia to several Asian countries, some of which Telenor operates in (Thailand and Myanmar). With Bangladesh representing the key boundary between South-East Asia and the rest of the world, Telenor will together with key partners such as Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Mahidol Oxford Research Unit (MORU), use human mobility data understand the spread in Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The aim of the study is to model population movements that spread drug resistant forms of Malaria. In addition to its established partners, the research team will work directly with local malaria control programmes, international universities and organisations with the ultimate goal of containing this emerging threat to health in the region. With the knowledge of how and where the drug resistance spreads, the local programmes can more effectively target campaigns to contain resistance.

The mobile industry’s role and possibilities within Big Data for Social Good

Many private sector players gather and own data that, in cooperation with governmental bodies, NGOs or others, can be used to predict spread of epidemics and diseases, natural disasters or environmental pollution. To read more about how telecommunications companies are doing with Big Data, you should check out GSMA’s website.

Explore more