Spain-based international operator Telefónica announced at the Mobile World Congress (running 27 February through 2 March in Barcelona, Spain) that it has teamed up with UNICEF to help the U.N. children’s agency use big data to track the spread of diseases and optimize its response to public health emergencies and natural disasters. Under UNICEF’s Magic Box initiative, real-time data from private-sector companies is gathered to better understand humanitarian disasters such as the Ebola crisis in West Africa—where the project was launched in 2014—and more recently, the spread of the Zika virus.
Magic Box combines real-time data sourced from the private sector with other existing public data sets relating to climate, UNICEF’s Geographic Information System and socioeconomic and epidemiological data.
At the Mobile World Congress, UNICEF and Telefónica will be demonstrating the first pilot of their partnership, with mobile network data from the operator’s Colombian unit used to show how data can be analyzed to improve the management of humanitarian disasters, supporting critical response and recovery monitoring. Mobile usage data per antenna (for example, number of calls, megabytes and SMS) was analyzed during natural disasters including an earthquake, a landslide and a flood, with the intention of better understanding human movement during crises.
As part of the agreement, in addition to sharing data sets, UNICEF’s innovation department will work with Telefónica’s own big-data unit, LUCA, to accelerate the development of real-time humanitarian data analytics. “Magic Box is a way to bring together partners like Telefónica and others from the private sector, who want to use their data as a public social good,” said Cynthia McCaffrey, the director of UNICEF’s office of innovation, adding that “to reach the hardest-to-reach children, we need to know where, when and how to act.”
We find Telefónica’s collaboration with UNICEF to be not only a commendable move on the operator’s part but also an excellent reminder of the many ways in which mobile data is useful in today’s world, beyond the traditional aspect of straight party-to-party communication.
While there has been much talk of the revenue that can be made in the retail and advertising spheres from the sharing of aggregate user data, there is another, more public-spirited aspect of the question, as this partnership makes clear. Currently there is much discussion of the privacy and security risks involved in mobile operators making user data available to third parties, and consumer groups have expressed deep concerns. On the other hand, the humanitarian use of big data to track people’s movements under disaster conditions is not likely to arouse opposition. For one thing, the data that will be collected and shared is metadata rather than personal information, but beyond that, the public-spiritedness of this initiative and its lack of profit motive should go a long way toward assuaging potential concerns.
Finally, this big-data project should have a positive effect on Telefónica’s brand, showing the company to be concerned with the public good on a worldwide level and showing its data to be both powerful and helpful.