Data is King

msafiri’s business columnist nkem ifejika reflects on the use of mobile data in society and asks the question: what should we do with all this information?

DataIsKingThe recent rebasing of the Kenyan economy is yet another voice in the choir singing ‘data is king’. There was also Nigeria earlier this year, which in the process of rebasing, overtook South Africa to become the ‘largest’ economy on the continent. The whole point of recalculating a country’s economy is to ensure that policy decisions are made on the basis of accurate information.

For example, a Kenyan economy based on 1990 figures might appear to be skewed towards farming. Agriculture is still the dominant sector, but there are now new areas such as ICT, with Kenya being a global pioneer in mobile money. Despite this, the Kenyan government could decide that it’s actually the agriculture sector that needs help so it can make a greater contribution to GDP in percentage and real terms. Policy makers could, for example, decide to give more support to farmers to help them improve yield, provide financing and so on. Reliable data is important.

In this our age of connectedness there is so much data being constantly generated. Take social media, where 500 million tweets are sent every day. To clarify, that’s daily. Hidden within all those tweets are shopping habits, political inclinations, television viewing interests, location data, and much more. The question then becomes what to do with all this information.

The city of Abidjan is one place that has benefited from the vast amounts of data generated by mobile phones. In 2013 IBM and the telecommunications company Orange used mobile phone call data to redraw bus routes in Abidjan. In simple terms, you can see where large numbers of calls are being made, and compare that to other areas in the city. With that information, transport providers can easily figure out where commuters are and send them buses and taxis. The advice given to city planners was to add two new routes and extend another.

‘Africa’ and ‘rising’ have arguably been the two most ubiquitous words tied together in the historical discourse about the continent in recent times. But what does that phrase mean? Most people agree that African economies are doing well. Others say that Africa may well be rising, but its people aren’t. In effect, ordinary people haven’t benefited from the huge gains made on the continent, and great disparities in wealth and income still exist. Then you have the agnostics, who say we couldn’t possibly tell whether Africa is rising because there isn’t enough reliable data to settle the argument.

I remember speaking to a commissioner in Lagos state in Nigeria about this very issue. I put it to him that not enough had been done to see a decent spread of wealth even as the country prospered. I pulled out some World Bank poverty figures with percentages of people living on less than two dollars a day. His response was simple. He’d seen data from mobile phone companies, and had seen how much people in the very poorest parts of Lagos were topping up daily on their phones. Believe me, he said, those people are not as poor as you think.