Big Data Can Transform the Global South’s Growing Cities

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The coming years will see a major new force dominating development: Big Data. The term refers to the vast quantities of digital data being generated as a result of the proliferation of mobile phones, the Internet and social media across the global South – a so-called ‘data deluge’ (UN Global Pulse). It is an historically unprecedented surge in data, much of it coming from some of the poorest places on the planet and being gathered in real time.

Big Data will have a profound impact on how the cities of the future develop, and will re-shape the way the challenges and problems of human development are handled.

Estimates by Cisco (cisco.com) foresee 10 billion mobile Internet-enabled devices around the world by 2016. With the world population topping 7.3 billion by then, that will work out to 1.4 devices per person.

Some estimates say 90 per cent of the digital data ever generated in the world has been produced in the past two years. It is also estimated that available digital data will increase by 40 per cent every year (UN Global Pulse). This digital transformation is being accompanied by another trend: the largest migration in human history from rural to semi-urban and urban areas.

This presents an unprecedented opportunity to make this rapid urbanization and social change smarter and more responsive to human needs, and to avoid the failures of the past, from over-crowding to crime, disease, pollution, unemployment and poverty. Some believe data collection can radically alter development by flagging up problems quickly, giving cities the chance to respond and correct negative trends before they get out of control. In short, to build in resilience by way of digital technology.

The latest region to see rapid industrialization and urbanization has been Asia – in particular China, a country that since the 1980s has simultaneously lifted the largest number of people in world history out of poverty and undertaken the biggest migration ever from rural to urban areas.

And now Africa is beginning to follow in Asia’s wake.

Unlike previous waves of industrialization and urbanization, Africa’s transformation is occurring in the age of the mobile phone, the Internet, personal computers and miniature electronic devices capable of more computing power than the computers used during the Apollo space programme (http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/diypodcast/rocket-evolution-index-diy.html). This changes the game significantly.

This 21st-century approach to urban growth is at its most sophisticated, and utopian, in so-called “smart cities.” These are built-from-scratch cities that use the “Internet of Things”, where everything, from lamp posts to garbage bins to roads are embedded with microchips and radio frequency transmitters (RFID chips) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio-frequency_identification) to communicate data in real time. By analyzing this data, cities can be responsive to human needs and mitigate problems – improving waste collection and traffic management, reducing crime and pollution. Services can be customized to residents’ needs and liberate them to spend more time on things that matter such as their own health, family, work and hobbies. Examples of these cities include Tianjin Eco-city (tianjinecocity.gov.sg) in China, Masdar (masdar.ae) in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Songdo International Business District (songdo.com) in the Republic of Korea.

These experimental smart cities are springing up in the East, and it will be the East – as well as Africa – that will see most of the action going forward. As the global management consulting firm McKinsey noted in its report Urban World: Mapping the Economic Power of Cities: “Over the next 15 years, the center of gravity of the urban world will move south and, even more decisively, east.”

Cities in the global South will be generating the new prosperity of the 21st century. And it is widely accepted that people living in cities have the potential to become very efficient economically while rapidly driving prosperity higher.

The McKinsey report says that “by 2025, developing-region cities of the City 600 (a list gathered by McKinsey) will be home to an estimated 235 million middle-class households earning more than (US) $20,000 a year at purchasing power parity (PPP).

“Emerging-market mega-and middleweight cities together – 423 of them are included in the City 600 – are likely to contribute more than 45 percent of global growth from 2007 to 2025 (http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/urbanization/urban_world).”

The world’s future prosperity is going to be found in the urban, the digitally connected, and the middle class.

Tracking all this digital change is the UN Global Pulse. UN Global Pulse (unglobalpulse.org) was started by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2009 with a mandate to study these changes and build expertise in applying Big Data to global development. UN Global Pulse functions as a network of innovation labs where research on Big Data for development is conceived and coordinated. It partners with experts from UN agencies, governments, academia, and the private sector to research, develop, and mainstream approaches for applying real-time digital data to 21st-century development challenges.

Unlike major technological trends of the past, this one is not restricted to the industrialized, developed world. Through the spread of mobile phone technology, billions of people are now using a device that constantly collects digital data, even in the poorest places on earth.

From an international development perspective, Big Data has five characteristics, according to UN Global Pulse: it is digitally generated, passively produced by people interacting with digital services, automatically collected, can be geographically or temporally traced and can be continuously analyzed in real time.

Sources of Big Data include chatter from social networks, web server logs, traffic flow sensors, satellite imagery, telemetry from vehicles and financial market data.

The key to using Big Data is combining datasets and then contrasting them in lots of different ways and doing it very quickly. The purpose?  Better decision-making, based on an understanding of what is really happening on the ground.

This data exceeds the capability of existing database software. It is either too much, or comes in too quickly, or can’t be handled using current software technology. Tackling this problem is creating a whole new wave of opportunities for those working in information technology.

As technology and processing power continue to improve, the cost of wrestling with this data and putting it to use is coming down.

The data can be analyzed for patterns and hidden information that before would have been too difficult to gather. This approach has been used by big companies such as WalMart (walmart.com), but it has cost them a large amount of money and time.

Pioneers in Big Data include search engine Google, email and search provider Yahoo, online shopping service Amazon and social media service Facebook. Many supermarkets use Big Data to analyze the way customers behave when they are shopping, combining it with their social and geographical data.

But new developments in hardware, cloud architecture, and open-source software mean Big Data processing is more accessible, including for small start-ups, who can just rent the capacity required on a cloud-based service (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing).

In the past, governments and planners had a ready excuse as to why they could not keep on top of ballooning urban populations and the chaos they brought. They could just throw up their hands and say “We do not know who these people are or what to do about them!”

This excuse does not work in the age of the mobile phone. It is now relatively easy to deploy the power of the networked computing inside mobile phones to map urban slums and identify the needs of the people there. Parse that data, and you have an accurate account of what is happening in the slum – all in real-time.

Making sense of all this information is creating its own new industries as innovators, entrepreneurs and companies step forward to chart this brave new world.

Historically, significant improvements in human development have occurred only after large-scale gathering of data and information on the actual living conditions of the population. For example, prototypes of today’s infographics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infographic) – informative visual representations of complex data – were created during the great attempts at tackling poverty and disease in Europe in the 19th century. Today’s masters of this technique include the Swedish doctor, academic and statistician Hans Rosling (gapminder.org), whose dynamic infographics are renowned for changing people’s perceptions of global problems.

UN Global Pulse notes “much of the data used to track progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) dates back to 2008 or earlier and doesn’t take into account the more recent economic crisis.

“While this may feed a perception that there is a scarcity of information about the wellbeing of populations, the opposite is in fact true. Thanks to the digital revolution, there is an ocean of data, being continuously generated in both developed and developing nations, that did not exist even a few years ago.”

UN Global Pulse believes Big Data can be used to protect social development gains when crises strike. Rather than undoing decades of good development work and human development achievements, Big Data can help to create agile responses to crisis as it happens.

UN Global Pulse believes the same data, tools and analytics used by business can be turned to help the public sector understand “where people are losing the fight against hunger, poverty and disease, and to plan or evaluate a response.”

Resources

1) Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity, Publisher: McKinsey Global Institute. Website: mckinsey.com

2) United Nations Global Pulse: Global Pulse is an innovation initiative launched by the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General, in response to the need for more timely information to track and monitor the impacts of global and local socio-economic crises. The Global Pulse initiative is exploring how new, digital data sources and real-time analytics technologies can help policymakers understand human well-being and emerging vulnerabilities in real-time, in order to better protect populations from shocks. Website: http://www.unglobalpulse.org/

3) Business Models for the Data Economy by Q. Ethan McCallum and Ken Gleason. Website: http://www.oreilly.com/data/free/business-models-for-the-data-economy.csp?intcmp=il-strata-free-product-lgen_biz_models_for_data_economy_strata_right_rail

4) Building Data Science Teams by D. J. Patil, Publisher: Radar. Website: http://www.oreilly.com/data/free/building-data-science-teams.csp

5) Big Data for Development Primer, Publisher: UN Global Pulse. Website: http://www.slideshare.net/unglobalpulse/big-data-for-development-a-primer

6) Mobile Phone Network Data for Development, Publisher: UN Global Pulse. Website: http://www.slideshare.net/unglobalpulse/mobile-data-for-development-primer-october-2013

7) Big Data, Big Impact: New Possibilities for International Development, Publisher: World Economic Forum. Website: http://www.weforum.org/reports/big-data-big-impact-new-possibilities-international-development

8) How numbers rule the world by Lorenzo Fioramonti, Publisher: Zed Books. Website: http://www.zedbooks.co.uk/node/16850

9) Southern Innovator Issue 1: Mobile Phones and Information Technology: Considered a landmark work capturing this fast-changing field, Issue 1 comes packed with stories and contacts. Website: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q1O54YSE2BgC&dq=southern+innovator+issue+1&source=gbs_navlinks_s

10) Urban world: Mapping the economic power of cities published by McKinsey Global Institute. Website: http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/urbanization/urban_world

11) Hadoop: Is open source software for handling of large data sets across clusters of computers using simple programming models. Website: http://hadoop.apache.org/

12) Pivotal: Pivotal develops software applications for big data. A testimonial on the Pivotal website sums it up: “With the ability to load a day’s worth of data for a million meters in under fifty (50) seconds, we are able to keep up with the tremendous amount of data generated and start experimenting with many useful smart grid analytics.” Website: gopivotal.com

13) TotallyDot: A way to centralize all the social media people use into a single page. Website: totallydot.com

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