- By Region
During the past few years, there has been one constant in my life. Wherever I have travelled, in America or elsewhere, I have carried a mobile phone. Usually, I do not think about this habit at all (except when I lose the device and panic).
But last week, I took part in a seminar organised by America’s Brookings Institution and Blum Center about development and global economics. And now I am looking at my mobile afresh. For what became clear in discussions with aid workers, healthcare officials and diplomats is that those oft-ignored devices are not just changing the way the western world lives – but changing poor societies, too.
About 2.5bn people in emerging markets have mobile phones. In the Philippines, Mexico and South Africa, mobile phone coverage is nearly 100 per cent of the population. People are not only better connected than before, which has big political and commercial implications; their movements, habits and ideas have become more transparent. That is significant, given how hard it used to be to monitor poor and geographically scattered societies.
Consider what happened two-and-a-half years ago when the Haitian earthquake struck. The population scattered, leaving aid agencies scrambling to work out where to send help. Traditionally, they would have had to fly over the affected areas, or travel on the ground. But researchers at Columbia University and the Karolinska Institute took a different tack: they tracked Sim cards inside Haitians’ mobile phones. That helped them to “analyse the destination of more than 600,000 people who were displaced from Port au Prince”, as a UN report says. Then, when a cholera epidemic hit Haiti, the same researchers tracked the Sim cards again, to put medicine in the correct locations.
Aid groups are not just tracking physical phones, they are also watching levels of mobile phone usage and bill payment. If this changes, it can indicate economic distress, far more accurately than, say, GDP data. The UN’s secretary-general is launching a project called Global Pulse to screen some of the 2.5 quintillion bytes of so-called “big data” generated each day, including on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. These are strikingly popular in emerging markets; Indonesia, for example, has one of the world’s most Twitter-addicted populations. Thus a sudden increase in certain keywords can provide early warning of distress. References to food or ethnic strife may indicate incipient famine or unrest. Similarly, medical researchers have learnt that social media references to infection are early signals of epidemics – and more timely than alerts from government doctors.
Such developments are controversial. Just as social media has sparked concern about privacy in the west, some observers worry about the dark side of this technological revolution in emerging markets. Not everyone who tracks these data is benign. Facebook allows activists to express opposition to governments (as in the Arab spring), but social media data could also help repressive governments monitor their populations. Companies can use the data, too; there are initiatives under way to use it to develop credit scores for the poor.
But such concerns are not deterring the UN. Robert Kirkpatrick, an IT expert who runs Global Pulse, argues that we should treat those 2.5 quintillion bytes of data as an international common good. He dreams of using these data to create social media “meteorological stations”, to test the winds of public debate, spot economic trends and predict looming problems. If this idea sounds far-fetched, economists can already use this information to track how economies are developing, with much more precision and timeliness than ever before.
That mobile phone in my pocket, in other words, does not just connect me to friends. It is now part of a shared human experience – and database – that spans the globe, and which is growing in depth and power each day.