Big Data isn’t just helping large corporations improve their bottom lines, but increasingly enabling development organizations and governments across the world fight poverty more effectively.  What was once a huge problem in international development – the lack of actionable data – is now turning into an invaluable asset thanks to the increasing amount of information available in a more mobile, connected world.  The figure below, from a recent report from the World Economic Forum, shows the emerging data sources in developing countries and its possible applications:

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Among the organizations leading this change include mobile polling/survey companies such as GeoPoll and Jana that are building out large platforms connecting different companies/NGOs directly with millions of BoP (Bottom of Pyramid) users, and enabling direct user interaction and data collection at a scale unheard of even a few years ago in the developing world.  Similarly, telecom operators and mobile payment companies such as M-Pesa and bKash are also collecting spending and transaction data for millions of customers, which can also yield very valuable insights into the daily lives of these people. Finally, other interesting means of data collection in the developing world include satellite imaging, Internet scraping and social network usage.

In many cases other groups, such as microfinance organizations, local government and community health centers already collect plenty of data, but aren’t able to use it effectively.  Organizations such as DataKind (previously known as Data Without Borders) are bringing together volunteer “data scientists” to work with these groups to better analyze and utilize the data. Also, other organizations such GapMinder are building publicly available tools that allow people to easily access and visualize the vast amounts of data already collected by large development organizations such as the UN and World Bank, with more data sources being added every day.

So what can we possibly do with all this data that’s now becoming available in the developing world?  Big data can be invaluable in improving public or social service design, delivery and transparency. It can help governments and NGOs build user-centric solutions for providing better access to services in health, education, financial services, and agriculture for people living in poverty, while reducing corruption and waste along the way. For example, digital payment histories can allow individuals to build credit histories so that they can access financial services such as consumer loans or access to other aid based programs. Similarly, access to large amounts of information from various sources can also help organizations identify and react better to health epidemics, natural disasters (earthquakes, cyclones, etc.) and agricultural related trends (drought, famine, etc).

At a fundamental level, we are now able to reach out to and collect data from billions of people across the world who were previously “inaccessible” even a few years ago, and this has the amazing potential to fundamentally change how we tackle intractable social problems such as poverty in the near future.