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Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy

Abstract

The use of digital communication technologies, and of mobile phones in particular, has seen an exponential rise in low- and middle-income countries over the last decade. These data, emitted as a byproduct of technologies such as mobile phone location information and calling metadata, have the potential to fill some of the problematic gaps in data resources available to country policymakers and international development organisations. Using three examples of current big data initiatives in the international development field, we examine the implications of these new types of data for development policy and planning: their advantages and drawbacks, emerging practices relating to their use, and how they potentially influence ideas and policies of development. We also assess the politics of these new types of digital data, which are often collected and processed by corporations or by researchers in industrialised countries. Our analysis indicates that these new data sources already represent an important complement to country-level statistics, but that there are currently important challenges which will need to addressed if the promises of big data in development are to be fulfilled.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We use the World Bank’s definitions grouping countries, see: http://data.worldbank.org/about/country-classifications, where LMICs have incomes of $1,036–$12,616 and high income countries (HICS) above that threshhold. Our particular focus is the low- and lower-middle-income countries, with an upper threshhold of $4,085 per capita, which includes India and most of Africa.

  2. 2.

    Results from the project were presented and discussed in a dedicated session at the NetMob 2013 conference, held at MIT, May 1–3, 2013.

  3. 3.

    Unusually for this type of mobile phone data study, the researchers took account of the fact that in low-income countries mobile phones are often shared, and calculated the number of people per SIM before extrapolating mobility statistics.

  4. 4.

    Robert Kirkpatrick, director, UN Global Pulse, in speech to the Internet Governance Forum. Bali, October 23, 2013.

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Interviews

  1. Bengtsson, Linus. Director, Flowminder. Interviewed 16.5.2013

  2. Blondel, Vincent. Professor of applied mathematics at the Université Catholique de Louvain and organiser of the D4D challenge. Interviewed 29.3.13

  3. Cavallo, Alberto. Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Assistant Professor of Applied Economics, MIT. Interviewed 15.11.2012

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  5. Kirkpatrick, Robert. Director, UN Global Pulse. Interviewed 14.5.2013

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Acknowledgments

We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for support for the project ‘Accessing and Using Big Data to Advance Social Science Knowledge’ at the Oxford Internet Institute. We are grateful to Ryan Burns and Jim Thatcher for helpful comments on an earlier version, which clarified the paper and improved several points, and to two anonymous reviewers for their comments and ideas.

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Correspondence to Linnet Taylor.

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Taylor, L., Schroeder, R. Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy. GeoJournal 80, 503–518 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-014-9603-5

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Keywords

  • Big data
  • Development
  • Policy