Big data - a force for social good

Tanzania's mobile registration program issues millions of birth certificates to children under the age of five each year

Tanzania's mobile registration program issues millions of birth certificates to children under the age of five each year

By Rachel Samrén, EVP Chief External Affairs Officer 

Version in Spanish 

April 2018: At the United Nations Economic and Social Council 2018 Partnership Forum in New York, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel focused on the role of the private sector in unleashing the potential of big data for social good.

While many people have an idea of the value of big data, few are familiar with the extraordinary power it has in promoting social good and creating inclusive societies.

Let’s start by drawing a definition of the big data gathering models. Big data is generated via mobile devices, social media, online transactions, sensors, and more. The United Nations Economic and Social Council explains that many governments in emerging markets have insufficient statistical capacities, however, the increased digital footprint of citizens is allowing them to capture data previously unavailable to them.

In business, the analytics for mining big data to find advertising, marketing and revenue opportunities is on the rise. The data can be processed to draw correlations and patterns of human experience, helping predict future behaviors.

Today, there is an existing preconception that big data is used solely as a money-making tool for marketers, analysts and strategists. But it is really much more than that — it can be harnessed as a useful mechanism to fight poverty and respond to epidemics, natural disasters and humanitarian crises in a fast and effective manner. It is also an important tool and opportunity for evidence-based policy making, especially in emerging markets, such as the ones where Millicom operates.

At Millicom, we recognize the power of big data, and are committed to harnessing it to support social and economic development in emerging markets.

UN Economic & Social Council Partnership Forum

UN Economic & Social Council Partnership Forum

On the one hand, we’re building digital highways — the actual telecommunications infrastructure — to handle the increasing internet and social media data traffic that our more than 50 million customers demand. On the other, we are finding opportunities to work with strategic partners to use big data for social good in a responsible manner.

We are one of the signatories of the GSMA’s Big Data for Social Good initiative which is focused on developing a consistent approach and processes mobile operators can use to share insights with public agencies and NGOs, while building an ecosystem to support timely planning and response.

One of the best examples is the work we’ve been doing in Tanzania which has one of the lowest levels of birth registrations in Africa. Only 16% of children under the age of five are officially registered at birth and only half of those registered receive a birth certificate. (VIDEO: Right to Identity)

The problem has a huge impact on those living in rural areas, vulnerable populations and women. A birth certificate can protect children from child labor, early marriage or human trafficking. Without proof of identity, citizens cannot access basic human rights such as healthcare, education and justice. They are also prevented from fully participating in the digital world.

Mobile technology is well placed to address the challenge of birth registration. In partnership with Tanzania’s Registration Insolvency & Trusteeship Agency (RITA) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), we created an innovative mobile solution which makes it easier to register newborns over an SMS-based or smartphone application.

Since we launched the mobile birth registration application in 2013, more than two million children under the age of five have been registered. That’s more than 80% of the under-five population in the seven regions of Tanzania where the project has been deployed. These children now have been registered citizens with all the benefits that entails.

The data from these birth registrations is also allowing Tanzania to better plan and monitor public services as well as design development policies and programs. Accurate demographic data also lead to more efficient and cost effective delivery of government services such as health and education.

Big data has the potential to reach the most marginalized groups left behind by traditional models of data collection and statistical analysis. It has the power, if used ethically, efficiently, and correctly, to build inclusive societies, where everyone is represented.

And we’re only scratching the surface of all we can do to develop more creative ways to use big data as a building block for public policy and social development. However, as is usually the case with innovative and new developments, there are some challenges. One of the most pressing is protecting the privacy of users’ data.

The use of digital devices generates data points on almost everything — where we go, what we buy, eat, read and write, what we watch and even how much we sleep and exercise. This must be kept private and protected if people are to use the Internet confidently.

This is a message we are spreading as a founding member of the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on Freedom of Expression and Privacy, which last year merged with the Global Network Initiative. We’re working on policies and practices to protect people’s fundamental rights for privacy and free expression, working with academics, ethical investors, human rights organizations, other mobile operators and technology companies.

With the proper protections in place, we can use big data analytics for social development without compromising people’s privacy.

When authorities have access to real-time data, they can respond faster and more effectively to the needs of populations affected by natural disasters as they will know the day-to-day needs of those populations, so they can have the necessary amounts of food, water and medicine on hand to respond to large-scale emergencies. Take Paraguay as an example, a country with severe flooding, and the recurrent drought in Chad and Guatemala, where the distribution of emergency financial relief provision is carried out using Tigo Mobile Financial Services.

Big data can also be channeled to predict and track disease outbreaks. In Zanzibar, the Flowminder Foundation, a Swedish non-profit organization, is tracking mobile data to study how people infected with malaria move between communities, making it possible to better understand transmission and the best ways to deal with it.

In Guatemala, Millicom is working with the Ministry of Education to monitor absentee rates of children at school. With their mobile phones, teachers can record the daily attendance of students. This data is fed back to the ministry, so they can better understand why children are not making it to school.

These are just a few of the ways big data analytics is helping - with more data available, we can improve people’s lives. But it’s up to all stakeholders involved not only to cooperate for the best solutions, but to do so in a manner that also respects data privacy. 

Rachel Samrén is the EVP Chief External Affairs Officer of Millicom, a leading provider of cable and mobile services and enabler of the Digital Lifestyle, mobile financial technology and business-to-business services. It provides these services through its main brand, Tigo, to more than 50 million customers in Latin America and Africa.