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mobile phone data for official statistics

Leveraging mobile data for statistical and policymaking purposes: Laurent Sarr speaks at the ITU’s WTIS

In this digital era, the ability to connect to systems like mobile networks and the Internet is essential, and even more so since the Covid-19 pandemic. Good connectivity allows people, businesses, and governments to interact, obtain goods, services, and information, learn, and make decisions, among others. Enabling universal connectivity was the central topic of the ITU’s 18th World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Symposium (WTIS), which was held in Geneva on 3 and 4 July under the theme “Advancing the measurement agenda to achieve universal and meaningful connectivity”. The first session of the second day addressed the topic of mobile phone data for official statistics. In his capacity as GVG’s Chief Technology Officer and as an expert in the field of leveraging Big Data for decision-making purposes, Laurent Sarr was invited to make a presentation and share his insights.

“Big Data is revolutionizing the world of statistics”

These were the words of Esperanza Magpantay, one of Laurent Sarr’s co-panelists in the session entitled Preparing the Ground: mobile phone data for official statistics. The Senior Statistician for the ITU’s ICT Data and Analytics Division backed her statement by highlighting the advantages of Big Data, and more specifically of mobile phone data (MPD), for statistical purposes. These advantages include improved granularity, accuracy, insights and timeliness and a lower cost of collection.

Mobile devices generate vast amounts of data that can be mined to enable the evaluation of the information society’s performance, effectively support national statistics offices (NSOs), and monitor the achievement of the SDGs. This data can also provide governments and regulatory authorities with actionable information that will support policymaking, which was the topic of Laurent Sarr’s presentation. However, data access proves to be a challenge in many countries, for a variety of reasons including a lack of capacity, resources, legislation and, very importantly, trust between the different stakeholders.

Through their respective intervention, Laurent Sarr and the other participants in the session–Esperanza Magpantay; Rua Alshehhi, Data Analyst, Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Centre, United Arab Emirates; and Trevor Monroe, Senior Program Manager in the World Bank’s Development Economics Data Group– showcased MPD as a valuable data source and presented approaches to improve data access and thus support both NSOs and governments.

Building trust through appropriate regulation and technology

Trust is a key requirement when it comes to building a digital society. The public sector needs accurate and reliable data for policymaking purposes. However, a lack of trust on the part of the private sector is impairing the free exchange of MPD and other data between the two. Restoring and building trust is therefore essential to ensure data access.

In his presentation, Laurent Sarr explained that the reasons behind this lack of trust were a regulatory gap, data security concerns and a need for improved understanding and communication between the public and private sectors. According to him, an appropriate regulatory framework is key to promoting data access in the countries where it remains problematic. Indeed, such a framework would bridge the regulatory gap, lay down and entrench the requirements pertaining to the security and confidentiality of the data, and send a message of reliability to the private sector. He added that technological measures needed to be implemented to ensure the data exchange is fully compliant with data privacy laws and regulations. These include hosting the collected data in a highly secure private environment, ensuring that the IT infrastructure is aligned with the best security practices and IT standards and pseudonymizing sensitive data.

The need for technological capacity was echoed by the other participants. Trevor Monroe and Esperanza Magpantay explained that leveraging MPD required high-performance computing and data science capabilities, while Rua Alshehhi mentioned the role of AI.

Data access is everyone’s business

Once restored, trust can then foster coordination. Coordination (and collaboration) indeed emerged from the session as a key driver of data access. The participants’ interventions indicated that coordination facilitated capacity building and the creation of public-private partnerships (PPPs), among other advantages.

Esperanza Magpantay highlighted the importance of coordination at an international level, which is the responsibility of the UN-CEBD, an international committee of experts on Big Data and data science for official statistics. Focusing on the MENA region, Rua Alshehhi called for the engagement of the whole of society in capacity building and knowledge sharing.

On the topic of PPPs, Laurent Sarr gave the example of GVG’s current collaboration with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD). The purpose of this collaboration is to support ministries of communications, NSOs and other relevant institutions by optimizing the public-private data exchange. GVG’s contribution takes the form of Business Process Mapping (BPM), which refers to the tools and techniques used to understand, analyze, and document processes & activities.

Coordination and collaboration may also make funds available to help create modern data ecosystems. Trevor Monroe, for instance, said that increased investment was needed to ensure that all NSOs can effectively work with mobile phone data. Indeed, only 20% of low- to middle-income countries are currently able to use sophisticated data for policymaking. The need for investment is the reason behind the creation of the Global Data Facility, he said.

Do you want to see the full video of this session? CLICK HERE!

The importance of universal connectivity is reflected in the fact that it forms part of the UNSDGs. This session of the WTIS has shown that MPD had a key role to play in achieving this goal. Indeed, by enabling the creation of reliable statistics by NSOs, it provides governments with the insights they need to make the right decisions, thus ensuring good governance. However, its optimal use depends on the implementation of appropriate regulatory framework and technologies to build trust and facilitate the creation of beneficial partnerships between the public and the private sectors. This is an approach that could arguably apply to data from any source.

Want to read about Laurent’s participation in the UNWTO’s workshop on mobile positioning data for tourism statistics? Click here.