World Bank President Jim Yong Kim at the Mobile World Congress. Photo by: David Adamson / GSMA

SAN FRANCISCO — One of the driving issues at this year’s Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile technology show, was the role the mobile industry can play in delivering on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Leaders from the mobile industry claim it was the first sector to fully commit to the SDGs. And this week presented an opportunity for them and observers of the sector to check in on its progress. The theme of the this year’s annual gathering in Barcelona, Spain, was #BetterFuture, and the 17 SDGs were a focus of debate and discussion.

Devex followed from afar some of the key developments for global development professionals from the Mobile World Congress.

The World Bank leverages IoT Big Data

The World Bank Group is increasingly looking to leverage big data from the Internet of Things, or IoT, to its work. For example, wearable data collection devices that allow users in India to monitor harmful emissions from their stoves. The World Bank sees applications for big data IoT in project design, implementation, and post-closure evaluation.

“To bring the power of mobile and IoT big data to development, it is essential to reach out to the one industry that collects and holds most of this asset, the global mobile operator industry,” José Luis Irigoyen, World Bank senior director for transport and digital development, told Devex via email. “We believe that mobile operators should be more than just vendors; they should be our partners in development. Operators have an interest in improving economic outcomes that will strengthen their customer base.”

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim spoke and announced a partnership with GSMA to leverage big data from the IoT to help end extreme poverty. Mobile network operators will share anonymized and aggregated data collected on IoT devices and smartphones. This is the first initiative bringing together a multilateral development bank together with the mobile communications industry.

“The mobile network industry provides the connectivity that is essential for countries to unlock new drivers of economic growth, help make the global market system work for everyone, and meet the world’s rising aspirations,” Kim said.

He noted that internet access gives people a better sense of where they stand in the world’s spectrum of income distribution. If the reference income goes up 10 percent, a person’s income must go up at least 5 percent, in order for him or her to maintain the same level of satisfaction. If this aspiration is met with frustration, there is potential for conflict, extremism, and migration, he warned, but the World Bank sees big data and IoT as ways to meet those aspirations with opportunities.

“With IoT and big data, we have the ability to provide insights that can be used across a wide range of applications, from agriculture to environmental protection and beyond,” said Mats Granryd, director general of GSMA.

Using big data for development goals presents complex challenges ranging from technology to data privacy to cybersecurity, making these kinds of convenings critical for collaboration between governments, mobile network operators, and the development community, Irigoyen explained. He said the support of GSMA will be invaluable in scaling up these approaches and leveraging IoT big data more systematically in the work the World Bank does.

Facebook partners to connect the unconnected

Social media giant Facebook sees global internet access as an integral part of its operations and the MWC presents a forum for the company to partner with others in its work to bring the cost of connectivity down.

In Barcelona, Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering at Facebook, announced a number of new initiatives to upgrade existing networks, build new networks, and leverage new technologies to connect the unconnected. For example, building on the success of a partnership with Telefonica to extend mobile coverage to rural areas of Peru, Facebook is expanding this work to more countries in Latin America, and also announced a plan to launch a similar initiative with Orange in Africa.

Facebook also shared insights from the 2018 Inclusive Internet Index, demonstrating that global connectivity has increased by 8.3 percent since its index last year. Some of the takeaways may not come as a surprise, for example: low income countries experienced the fastest and greatest progress, mobile internet services are increasingly vital to those populations, and the cost of mobile broadband data is falling but not quickly enough considering income levels. But Facebook brought some fresh numbers to the issue, uncovering for example a gender access gap of 80.2 percent in low-income countries as compared to 3.7 percent in high-income countries.

Following the announcements that Facebook makes year to year is a good way to understand the company’s evolving perspective and approach on the best ways to connect the unconnected. Last year, the focus was on the Aquila drone project, and other more futuristic approaches to deliver internet access. But this year the conversation was around technologies such as backhaul, radios, and base stations.

Companies lending money, skills, technology

Sigve Brekke, CEO of Telenor Group, a telecommunications company based in Oslo, Norway, that operates globally, gave a talk outlining how Telenor has committed to SDG 10, which focuses on reduced inequalities, not only by delivering solutions to close the inequality gap, but also by improving working conditions amongst suppliers.

“To help the world achieve the SDGs, mobile operators must continue to think above and beyond ‘business as usual’ improvements and accelerate every activity that contributes to the SDGs,” said Granryd in a post this week outlining the business case for the industry to embrace the SDGs.

Beyond Telenor, another example he mentioned was Vodafone Group, whose sustainable business strategy is focused on SDGs including youth skills and jobs, women’s empowerment, and energy innovation.

GSMA also recognized companies for their efforts, for example in an award for best mobile innovation supporting emergency or humanitarian situations. The winner for this category was Ericsson and the United Nations World Food Programme for their work in the Caribbean last year supporting relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma. The judges explained that the partnership demonstrates the power of technology companies and their employees leverage their money, skills, and technology.

“Partnership is the new leadership,” said Heather Johnson, who is responsible for sustainability and public affairs communications for Ericsson.

The summit tends to result in public-private partnerships leveraging mobile for social good, like the launch of a new program called “Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation,” which will be managed by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and implemented by GSMA.

“The mobile industry is one of the few that can cut across all 17 goals and help achieve and, in some cases, accelerate achievement of the goals,” Johnson told Devex via email. “No one entity can tackle global challenges alone, so it will be partnerships where each party brings their expertise, and establish a trusted and collaborative way of working that will really be key.”

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.