By Dr Nuria Oliver

GLOBAL institutions like the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and the World Bank are waking up to the potential for data to help change the world for the better.

Data is an enabler. It is essential to understand that this is not just about driving the commercial gains that are often shouted about. A case in point is that one of the key aims of the UN World Data Forum in January was to explore innovative ways to apply data and statistics to measure global progress and inform evidence-based policy decisions.

The explosion of data available means there is now human behavioural data available to analyse and so much scope to make better decisions. It’s about using data for good. This is a key theme that is being addressed at DataFest17 in Edinburgh this week. In fact Unicef will also be there outlining how it is using data to in its work.

This is largely possible because of the ubiquitous computers in our pockets – our mobile phones. Even way back in 2004 I could see that the mobile phone was a technology that would enable us to understand people in a way we have never done before. Skip forward to now and 79 per cent of people between 18 and 44 have their devices within reach 22 hours a day and feel nomophobia when their phones are not near them. We spend more time with our phone than anybody else in our lives. As such, mobile data has the potential to provide enlightening insights into human and social behaviour.

It is about modelling large-scale aggregate human behaviour through data. How to understand that behaviour is a very important step in developing technology that is meaningful, positive and helpful. To do that, you need to be able to understand people.

My research experience in using Big Data to drive social benefits has often relied on using aggregated mobile network data that has been pseudo-anonymised and made available for research purposes with a social-good angle. A few mobile network operators have shared mobile network data, usually aggregated into weeks or months, within a number of social projects and competitions. Orange’s Data for Development, Telefónica’s Datathon for Social Good, with the Open Data Institute and the Campus Party, and Telecom Italia are three examples. Note that it is not the scary “big brother” levels of detail, but aggregated and anonymised data with no impact on privacy.

There are so many ways it can be used. For instance, for public health through building more accurate epidemiological models of infectious disease transmission –particularly important when facing the risk of a pandemic. It is possible to model how infections spread because we can use the mobile data to measure human mobility and assess human contact networks. It is the first time in history that we can examine the mobility of an entire population. Even 10 years ago, we couldn’t do that.

Another example is how data can be used to track and then ultimately optimise emergency responses to natural catastrophes like earthquakes or floodings. You can look at how such events affect local populations and that can inform the recovery operations.

A third area is economic development and inferring the impact of socio-economic factors, while the fourth is urban planning. Several research projects have been carried out using mobile data for transportation modelling, hot spot detection, pollution estimation, crime prediction and environmental planning. The data enables us to understand how cities evolve or populations react to adverse conditions, for example. Data analysis can serve to validate social science theories.

It is important to note that research projects in this new field are typically multi-disciplinary, not least because of the need for complementary skills sets. The world is not siloed. So it is important that such projects reflect that reality. You need a team that includes experts in all the relevant areas of influence for instance epidemiologists, experts from the public sector, as well as data scientists. Bringing people together into a diverse team is part of what makes for a successful project, especially given their different academic skills bases.

It is a very exciting time to be in this area because the opportunity to have an impact is huge. We are making progress, but we still need to increase data literacy, show case studies to understand how to realise the value of Big Data and successfully turn such case studies into solutions in production.

Important decisions about future policy can be truly be evidence-based like never before. There is therefore real potential to make tangible differences in the lives of millions of people. Big Data has a valuable role to play in achieving sustainable development and growth.

Dr Nuria Oliver, expert in artificial intelligence and Data Science, is European Digital Woman of the Year 2016, Vodafone Director of Data Science Research and Chief Data Scientist at Data Pop Alliance. She is speaking at the inaugural DataFest17 on Thursday.