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Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL)

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April 20, 2017

The Potential of Data for Development

By | Blog, Digital development, Sustainable Development Goals, Tech innovations, Technology

The rise in the use of digital technologies – particularly mobile phones – has led to an exponential rise in digital data. A lot of new data is being generated by people in communities that have previously not been represented, thanks to cheaper, more accessible phones and service plans.

Data for development
The Benefits of Leveraging Digital Data

Historically, the traditional source of data to support development efforts has come from surveys and official statistics. Without discounting their importance, these sources tend to come with high costs and long timeframes to collect, which ultimately results in outdated indicators. At the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) we believe that new digital data sources, such as mobile call detail records (CDRs) and satellite imagery, can complement traditional development indicators to turn big data into actionable insights for development programs to be used in decision-making and project delivery. These new digital data sources can also reduce time, money and knowledge gaps.

From academic studies, to telecommunications (telco) driven pioneering experiments and ad hoc responses to crises – the immense potential of using mobile data for development has been demonstrated. While the potential of using data for development is known, limited traction has been achieved across the development sector due to various issues such as unclear costs/benefits, regulation issues, difficulty in scaling/sustaining/replicating, capacity issues and privacy risks. What’s needed is better scalability and sustainability, and a clearer alignment with the market reality of data holders and key ecosystem participants.

DIAL is taking a multi-pronged investment approach partnering with data holders, leveraging existing projects, and working with policy and regulatory actors to develop a shared value proposition that addresses common barriers across actors. DIAL’s Data for Development (D4D) team is exploring three to five investments this year that illustrate how network data can help address specific development challenges. These holistic but targeted use cases will allow DIAL to develop the insights needed to scale and build out a broader and more efficient D4D ecosystem. This includes, but is not limited to, the broader integration of data (within and beyond telco data) and the acceleration of the development of an ecosystem of applications.

One example DIAL is tackling is how to better predict food crises through the use of big data. Research suggests that there is a strong correlation between mobile phone top-ups and calorie consumption. If a consumer is recharging their SIM cards less frequently, they are also consuming less calories. By combining this mobile data with satellite remote sensing of food security variables (such as crop condition, growth and yield), we can better forecast potential food crises.

Another example that our partner Data2x examined in their report Big Data and the Well-Being of Women and Girls (April 2017) is the use of satellite imagery to improve the spatial resolution of existing data on women and girls obtained from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). They found that certain social and health indicators such as child stunting, literacy and access to modern contraception are correlated with geospatial phenomena. By testing various models in five different counties they demonstrated how limited and unevenly distributed survey data points across a country can be transformed into a continuous landscape of information.

DIAL will continue to explore these use cases and more to identify the best learnings to improve the D4D ecosystem. We are uniquely positioned to achieve this because of our constant focus on the roadblocks to scale, our neutrality towards location and sector and our team of experts that understand both public and private sector motivations.

As we explore how to best use data for development, we will be sharing our learnings and best practices on leveraging the power of data for development. If you’re interested in partnering with us to explore this work, contact me.

Danielle Dhillon joined the Digital Impact Alliance in March 2017 as Senior Program Analyst, Data for Development. In this role, she works to demonstrate the value of a viable Data for Development (D4D) ecosystem for driving effective learning and decision-making across development programs, the public sector and the private sector.



April 17, 2017

Providing Sustainable Access to Underserved Populations By Aggregating Core Mobile Services

By | Blog, International development, Tech innovations, Technology

Despite the growth of smartphone adoption and mobile internet access around the world, the majority of underserved populations in emerging markets still depend on core mobile channels – primarily voice, SMS and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) – for communication, which are provided by mobile network operators (MNOs). However, working with MNOs has its challenges as each operator is invested in its own technical infrastructure and commercial plans, and are often at different stages of the regulatory process. This makes it difficult for the development sector to effectively partner with MNOs to create long-term, financially sustainable access to core mobile channels for those who still need them.

This is a problem the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) is addressing as part of our Platforms and Services work, specifically, how to help the development community seize the opportunity to work with MNOs and leverage core mobile channels to reach underserved populations.

What’s the Best Solution?

Mobile aggregators can help address some of the challenges the development sector and MNOs face in working together.

While they come in many forms and focus on delivering different services, mobile aggregators’ core business is to offer cross-MNO services. They help to smooth the integration points across operators by providing access to pre-negotiated volume rates and required regulatory approvals. Many are also interested in developing services which can be sold to other operator partners, making them the perfect host for supporting Mobile for Development (M4D) services and driving long-term sustainability. Some mobile aggregators have also created platforms featuring standard Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) which organizations and even individual developers can leverage to create and launch services at scale, almost instantly. While working with these intermediaries has the potential of reducing many delivery complexities, there continues to be financial, technical and operational barriers that DIAL plans to investigate and address.

DIAL recently convened representatives from the mobile industry as well as the development sector to discuss these barriers as well as potential solutions. Facilitated by the Brightfront Group, participating organizations included Africa’s Talking, Cellulant, Instedd, Souktel, UNICEF, Voto Mobile and World Vision. The discussion illuminated common areas of interest, including joint learning, industry standardization and identifying market incentives.

Joint Learning to Share Existing Best Practice and Expertise

The wide range of perspectives and experiences within the group not only made for lively discussion, but also reinforced the usefulness of collaboration and sharing of best practices and concerns across sectors. The group highlighted examples of successful collaborations between aggregators and the development sector that could already be shared, including:

  • The curation and dissemination of best practices in working with aggregators / the mobile sector in the form of suggested how-to-guides, wikis, checklists and templates, which would make it easier for newcomers to the space (or to different geographies or sectors) to orient themselves to what has been tried and has worked (or hasn’t).
  • The formation of joint learning networks, whether physical or virtual, where both interested implementing organizations as well as potential aggregator or technology partners can gather, identify one another and exchange experiences.

Industry Standardization to Accelerate Time to Market

The group also agreed that while the aggregators have done a lot of work in integrating their platforms with multiple MNOs, there was still standardization work to be done – such as technical, operational, regulatory and/or commercial – to speed up time to market. This can take the form of:

  • Common basic technical / service standards that can be used by the development sector and align with aggregators and technology partners on objectively verifiable criteria. This will make it easier for implementers within the development sector to locate the right technology partner to work with, with common expectations of service and delivery.
  • Pre-negotiated agreements and protocols with headline agreements between operators, aggregators, regulators and governments that can dramatically shorten time of response, particularly during times of humanitarian crisis.
  • Bundled hardware / software solutions, which can complement the pre-negotiated agreements and protocols and be pre-tested and deployed rapidly around common use cases.
  • Best practice regulation around services supporting the underserved, helping shorten regulatory processes around areas such as short code approvals and sharing of mobile data.

 Market Incentives to Catalyze and Drive Participation

Finally, there is recognition that players in all sectors, particularly those in the commercial sector, require targeted market incentives for meaningful participation. These incentives could incorporate:

  • Demand pooling and forecasting, which reduces the fragmentation of asks originating from the development sector and creates future pipelines that enable players to plan and invest in capacity, which in turn reduces uncertainty and lowers costs.
  • Financial incentives for entering new markets, for high risk markets with no aggregator presence to reduce risk for local players to test out demand.

These ideas will be tested further and incorporated as part of DIAL’s Mobile Network Integration work, as we and our partners continue to look for ways to bring the mobile sector closer to the development ecosystem.  We are also on the lookout for feedback and suggestions so please feel free to email your thoughts to Kai-lik Foh, Program Director, at kfoh@digitalimpactalliance.org

A record of the workshop discussion areas and outputs is attached below.


Kai-Lik Foh joined the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) in February 2017 as Program Director of the Mobile Network Integration Initiative, aiming to improve the pace and efficiency of service delivery by the development sector through core mobile channels. He works to identify as well as promote innovative solutions in collaboration between the mobile and development sector, to improve access to basic digital services for the underserved. 

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