Mobile industry look to cell phone users to fill holes in development data gaps

A man with his smartphone in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by: Abir Abdullah / ADB / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — Some of the largest mobile operators responsible for connecting 2 billion more people across 100 countries see an opportunity in the natural disasters, health epidemics, and day-to-day occurrences that can be observed by cell phone use.

It creates a pool of anonymous data, said Mats Granryd, the director general of the mobile operator trade association GSMA, and provides insight into these emergencies and trends. The growth of this big data is also serving to establish an emerging market, and serve as a unifying force for the mobile industry.

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“We can unify ourselves around one common purpose, and that purpose is to connect everyone and everything to a better future. And that better future — I see no better place to be than here at the United Nations,” Granryd told Devex in an interview in the lobby of the U.N. Headquarters this week.  

“We are also the first industry sector, I believe, to wholeheartedly commit to the 17 SDGs,” he continued. “There is not one goal looking after the [information and communications technology] role, which is pretty smart, because it is underpinning all of the goals.”

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As countries work to achieve the 17 global goals by 2030, a large part of tracking the implementation process will come down to quality of data. Here, Granryd sees an opportunity for engagement with sectors of the mobile industry.

“The mobile industry can play such an important role to better understand how people are going to where they came from ... in an anonymous way,” he explained.

While nearly nearly 5 billion existing customers are plugged in on their mobile phones, approximately 2 billion people remain off the grid.

More than half the world’s population was within reach of a 4G network by the end of 2016, according to GSMA findings released at the U.N. this week, while nearly 85 percent had access to 3G networks. Faster, more reliable 5G networks will reach 100 million U.S. subscribers by 2012, Granryd estimates. Asian markets will likely keep pace with this, allowing for stronger systems of data collection and information dissemination, for example, in times of disasters.

Part of the challenge, now, he said, is focusing on the 1.2 billion people who do not live under any type of coverage, and the 3.5 billion who do, but choose not to connect.

The reasons for this can vary, Granryd said.

“It can be availability, it can be scale issues.” For example, Granryd said common refrains include, “I don’t know how to use it, nor do I have the money. Or, I know how to use it but there is nothing there for me. There is no relevant content.” Granryd said “that is something we really need to address.”

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.