Over the last several years, the world has been experiencing a “data revolution”. The use of telephones, social networks and electronic payments in our personal and social activities is creating more and more data that are increasingly detailed. These data are mostly produced, stored and utilized by private enterprises: telecommunication companies, banks, web platforms and social networks, etc. But in the fields of health, education, agriculture and transportation, for example, there are significant opportunities for better analyzing the needs of populations and territories thanks to these data. Can big data can be utilized in an ethical and secure way to produce information to serve the general interest and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? This is the challenge taken up by Project OPAL (for “Open Algorithms”). This project was launched in December 2016 and was developed by a consortium of public, private and academic partners led by the think tank Data-Pop Alliance, MIT Media Lab, Orange, Imperial College London and the World Economic Forum.
AFD’s funding of 1.5 million euros is helping to initiate and deploy an initial version of the solution as well as pilot operations in Colombia and Senegal in partnership with the national statistics agencies there and two major telephone companies (Sonatel in Senegal and Telefónica in Colombia). This funding gives a boost to a project already supported by the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD).
For the last few years, Senegal has been one of the key countries of the subregion with regard to innovation and “data revolution”, for providing greater effectiveness and accountability for public decision-making. OPAL seeks to accompany and intensify this change by helping to liberate the potential of its data ecosystem at Sonatel and the National Agency for Statistics and Demography (ANSD).
In concrete terms, OPAL will, for example, enable the use of telephone call statistics to build models of movements of people and to estimate their needs in transportation. The project will also analyze the topping up of SIM cards in minutes, to estimate poverty rate. The objective is thus to produce key socio-economic indicators practically in real time and at very low cost. It will then be possible to make these new quality statistics available to national statistics institutions and other socio-economic actors.
OPAL would make it possible to consolidate the social vision of the use of data for social well-being, making Telefónica a data company committed to the sustainability of the society in which it works. Moreover, it’s possible to find financial equilibrium by promoting a data ecosystem in which the company offers its commercial services in big data.
A secured and ethical system
To protect personal data and control how they are used, the solution built by OPAL includes several characteristics. Firstly, the OPAL servers are set up on the premises of the private partners. These latter run open algorithms that will take care of processing the raw data in order to produce interesting indicators. This way, no personal data leave the company, and the algorithms that process them can be verified. At the same time, OPAL establishes a Council for Orientation for Development and Ethics (CODE), which includes the national stakeholders and validates the ways in which data are utilized. This both technological and institutional solution ensures that the use of personal data is secured, open and ethical.
It’s a question of establishing a climate of trust in order to provide, at each possible opportunity, solutions to questions that have remained unanswered, such as the best systems for sharing data between the public and private sectors, the guarantee of confidentiality and the possibility of publishing data for the social good.
Pilot projects in Senegal and Colombia
In Senegal, following the formal signing of contracts with the key partners Sonatel and the ANSD statistics agency, several cases of use were chosen to test the initial version of the platform. Examples included analysis of travel time to reach rural markets and estimation of probable directions in which contagious diseases propagate. These cases are subject to tests for the “minimum viable product 1” of the pilot project.
Furthermore, the setting up of the Council for Orientation for Development and Ethics (CODE) is under way, and discussions on the value chains of data and business models were started up in early May in Paris between the project team and the Sonatel representatives.
Similar actions were also launched in Colombia, in partnership with the Ministry of Planning (DNP) and the National Statistics Agency (DANE). One of the cases of use focuses on populations living near the former zones of conflict with the FARC. The production of socio-economic indicators on these populations should help better define public interventions.
World Data Forum in October 2018
Next fall, the team will be able to establish an initial assessment of these two experiments on both the technical and the legal and organizational levels, and then present the project during the UN World Data Forum on October 23-24, in Dubai. This will help make OPAL known, share the initial results, and show how this solution has the potential to make things happen and put data at the service of all.