Postal big data holds keys to development

Miguel Luengo-Oroz, UN Global Pulse's research chief, explains why big data from the postal sector can make an impact on the public good.

Luengo-Oroz has his finger on the pulse (Photo: UN Global Pulse)

Union Postale: What is big data for development?

Miguel Luengo-Oroz: Big data refers to the massive amount of data produced as people go about their daily lives. Whenever we make a phone call, send a letter or buy something, we leave behind data footprints all the time.

Taken together, millions of transactions can reveal larger trends.

We take for granted that the private sector is taking fast decisions as it knows what customers are doing, what they are buying and selling.

In our case, we want public policy-makers to benefit from the same kinds of data inputs for international development, to gain early warning of global shocks, real-time awareness of people’s well-being and feedback on whether aid and development programmes are working.

What kind of data is Global Pulse interested in?

First, information that is available publicly online, for instance from social media.

It’s the digital footprint of what people or organizations publish themselves.We never look at private or confidential information.

Second, there are other types of digital footprints that are usually in the hands of the private sector, for instance, mobile-phone traffic data. We are not interested in the content of conversations but patterns of communication.

After a natural catastrophe, you can see how the population migrates by tracking the number of phone numbers that are moving from one place to another. Such information may help to improve the allocation of resources after disaster strikes. Postal data would also fall into this category.

Why is the UN Global Pulse interested in data from the postal world?

In discussions with the UPU’s postal economics team, we discovered that the UPU has the biggest harmonized physical data that is real time in the world.

Particularly in countries where there is a digital divide, postal data could fill the gap. In countries where mobile-phone ownership and internet penetration rates are low, people are still creating digital footprints through interactions with the postal system and the idea of this as a proxy is very promising.

What is your key message to our member countries?

They have huge assets in their countries and can be at the forefront of innovation by collaborating on pilot projects with Global Pulse and the UPU.


Full interview

Union Postale, December 2013, pg 12 (click here)

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