Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy

March 23, 2017 by Linnet Taylor, Ralph Schroeder

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The use of digital communication technologies, and of mobile phones in particular, has seen an exponential rise in low- and middle-income countries over the last decade. These data, emitted as a byproduct of technologies such as mobile phone location information and calling metadata, have the potential to fill some of the problematic gaps in data resources available to country policymakers and international development organisations. Using three examples of current big data initiatives in the international development field, we examine the implications of these new types of data for development policy and planning: their advantages and drawbacks, emerging practices relating to their use, and how they potentially influence ideas and policies of development. We also assess the politics of these new types of digital data, which are often collected and processed by corporations or by researchers in industrialised countries. Our analysis indicates that these new data sources already represent an important complement to country-level statistics, but that there are currently important challenges which will need to addressed if the promises of big data in development are to be fulfilled.