The decidedly not flat world of data

January 28, 2014 by


Last week I wrote about mobile phones and the potential for unbanked and poor households to benefit from digital financial services, as an introduction to topics that we’ll explore on Day 1 in the upcoming Frugal Innovation Forum: Scaling Digitally.  Day 2 will bring yet another exciting and urgent topic—data.

In advanced economies, digital finance also brought about a data revolution.  Like never before, companies have been able to see how consumers were behaving and create increasingly valuable products and services.  These “big data” techniques are increasing applied to development fields–identifying epidemics, improving education, conserving energy, making buildings safer, the list goes on.

It’s hard to overstate the incredible value of data.  Bill Gates writes,

“It’s indisputable that the availability of massive amounts of information will revolutionize US health care, manufac­turing, retail, and more. But it can also benefit the poorest 2 billion. Right now researchers are using satellite images to study soil health and help poor farmers plan their harvests more efficiently. We need a lot more of this kind of innovation. Otherwise, Big Data will be a big wasted opportunity to reduce inequity.”

I worry a lot about the new types of inequalities that data could create.  While there are increasingly sophisticated ways to understand first-world problems, many governments and organizations still lack basic data systems to support decision making in many public and private institutions.  For example, cancer registries are set up as a clever way to continuously improve our understanding of disease and improve outcomes.  But this “global” clinical dataset includes virtually all Americans and Europeans, 80% of Australians, 6% of Latin Americans, 4% of South Asia, and only 1% of Africans.  Clearly our knowledge will advance more rapidly for some populations than others, and may overlook important differences in disease trajectories.

To be fair, there are many Northern-led efforts to fight these trends that do great work.  A few standouts that have recently caught my eye were the efforts to create a map to inform response efforts in South Sudan.  Another very frugal initiative took place after the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, where the School of Data led a virtual weekend initiative to collate information about all local garment factories and international buyers.  There are many examples of successful initiatives, but they are no substitute for the larger systems that could truly transform policy and practice at scale. I read about breakthroughs like New York City’s data systems to fight crime or’s system for predicting disease outbreaks, and I wonder how Bangladesh and other developing countries can catch up.

But don’t count us out yet!  In recent years, creative entrepreneurs in the Global South have devised innovative ways to leverage data and the growing penetration of mobile phones.  Several will be joining us at the Frugal Innovation Forum, including:


“Do it yourself” platform for crowdsourcing
During Kenya’s political violence in 2008, there was an urgent need to track the violence and direct crisis response.  Ushahidi created an online platform that “crowdsourced” reports—submitted by email, twitter, a web-based form and SMS.  They’ve made this software openly available, and it’s been used around the world for solutions they couldn’t have imagined!  We used it last year to run a nationwide grassroots poll on post-2015 priorities at the community level.

Assessing the three R’s, at scale
Imagine running a national survey on literacy and numeracy every year in India.  The logistics alone are mind boggling!  Yet ASER has developed a system that’s so simple that even illiterate parents in rural villages understand how their children test, and powerful enough that it affects the education budgeting process every year.  The survey is conducted by volunteers, primarily university students, who view it as a fun chance to do good and see new parts of their country.  Recently, ASER’s expanded into other sectors, like health and sanitation, and gone global, helping organizations in Pakistan and several African countries to adapt the methodology.

There is an urgent need for more investments and attention to data in South Asia and Africa.  Most agree on that.  But where should we start? One goal of the Frugal Innovation Forum is to bring together a diverse group to discuss important topics in ways that enable practitioners to apply new learning within their own work.  We’re very excited for the range of experts that we’ll have joining us—from organizations that now build and use state-of-the-art systems, to academics and freelance experts, to mapping specialists, and many more.

Keen to be part of the data revolution?  Registration for the Frugal Innovation Forum on March 28-30 is filling up fast, so please apply for an invitation today!

Maria A. May (@mariamayhem523) is a senior programme manager for BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab and the Microfinance Research and Development Unit  in Dhaka, Bangladesh.