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Category Archives: International development

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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March 23, 2017

From Texts to Tweets to Satellites: The Power of Big Data to Fill Gender Data Gaps

By | Blog, Digital development, Global development, International development, Sustainable Development Goals

Guest Blog by Rebecca Furst-Nichols

Twitter posts, credit card purchases, phone calls, and satellites are all part of our day-to-day digital landscape.

Data2x Big Data LaunchDetailed data, known broadly as “big data” because of the massive amounts of passively collected and high-frequency information that such interactions generate, are produced every time we use one of these technologies. These digital traces have great potential and have already developed a track record for application in global development and humanitarian response.

Data2X has focused particularly on what big data can tell us about the lives of women and girls in resource-poor settings. Our research, released today in a new report, Big Data and the Well-Being of Women and Girls, demonstrates how four big data sources can be harnessed to fill gender data gaps and inform policy aimed at mitigating global gender inequality. Big data can complement traditional surveys and other data sources, offering a glimpse into dimensions of girls’ and women’s lives that have otherwise been overlooked and providing a level of precision and timeliness that policymakers need to make actionable decisions.

Here are three findings from our report that underscore the power and potential offered by big data to fill gender data gaps:

1. Social media data can improve understanding of the mental health of girls and women.

Mental health conditions, from anxiety to depression, are thought to be significant contributors to the global burden of disease, particularly for young women, though precise data on mental health is sparse in most countries. However, research by Georgia Tech University, commissioned by Data2X, finds that social media provides an accurate barometer of mental health status.

Algorithms can not only detect genuine self-disclosures of mental illness on Twitter, but can disaggregate these tweets by sex and gauge characteristics like tone and affect to track positive or negative expressions. Across the world, these tools can serve as an early first step in assessing prevalence of mental health conditions. And for individual women and girls, they may be used to provide information on treatment and resources to groups with high prevalence levels.

These methodologies still have limitations, including bias toward literate (and tech-literate) women and girls, dominant-language Twitter users, and those with access to the internet.

However, as more women, and particularly young women, come online, these methodologies are likely to be increasingly valuable, especially given the severity of these issues and the challenges associated with collecting mental health information through other means.

2. Cell phone and credit card records can illustrate women’s economic and social patterns – and track impacts of shocks in the economy.

Our spending priorities and social habits often indicate economic status, and these activities can also expose economic disparities between women and men.

By compiling cell phone and credit card records, our research partners at MIT traced patterns of women’s expenditures, spending priorities, and physical mobility. The research found that women have less mobility diversity than men, live further away from city centers, and report less total expenditure per capita.

Since this data is continuously generated, this type of analysis can be performed over longer time spans to capture impacts of economic and environmental shocks, stressors, and policy changes on women’s lives in real time.

It is critical to note that, despite its promise, data access and privacy remain a key challenge for institutionalization of these real-time surveillance systems into country statistical offices. And, as with social media information, any analysis performed on cell phone and credit card data must be complemented with other ‘ground truthing’ surveys to ensure that researchers know what type of women are included in – and left out of – the dataset for reasons of access, affordability, literacy, and other barriers.

The 61st Commission on the Status of Women taking place this week highlights women’s economic empowerment and their roles in both paid and unpaid work, and big data holds great promise for measuring empowerment and shaping our understanding of women’s economic needs and priorities.

3. Satellite imagery can map rivers and roads, but it can also measure gender inequality.

Satellite imagery has the power to capture high-resolution, real-time data on everything from natural landscape features, like vegetation and river flows, to human infrastructure, like roads and schools. Research by our partners at the Flowminder Foundation finds that it is also able to measure gender inequality.

Satellite imagery can fill gaps in traditional surveys by providing more frequent and higher resolution information about girls’ and women’s lives. Our research piloted methods of correlating geospatial variables (like distance to roads) with well-being indicators (like literacy) to infer patterns of social and health phenomena.

Mapping these phenomena using this method can reveal pockets of gender inequalities that are typically masked by averages on the country or district level. This use of big data for more frequent, and higher resolution, information on the well-being of women and girls offers huge potential for helping policymakers more effectively direct resources to where they are needed most.

The release of this report is just the first step. Data2X is excited to explore future possibilities for using digital data sources, and this year, will announce a new opportunity for researchers interested in using big data – along with other sources – to capture multiple dimensions of girls’ and women’s lives, inform policies, and improve outcomes.


This blog was originally posted on UNFoundationBlog.org.

Rebecca Furst-Nichols is the Deputy Director of Data2X, working on Women’s Economic Empowerment and Data2X.


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