Yet, there is an important difference between developed and developing countries in terms of data creation. In the developed world, data is produced by a wide variety of sources - Internet-enabled computers and mobile devices, ATMs, cash registers, GPSs, cell phones, RFID tags, and many others. In urban areas of developing countries, the variety of data sources is beginning to rival mature-market cities. However, in the remote areas of many countries, mobile phones are by far the dominant source of data. This presents a unique opportunity for private companies, governments, academic institutions, and development organizations. Data from mobile phones can be used by companies to support new product definition, market segmentation, and ongoing product and service development. Governments and NGOs can use big data to allocate resources, evaluate and improve social programs, and quickly identify (and respond to) health and environmental crises.
In a recent report for the World Economic Forum, Vital Wave Consulting showed that momentum is growing for a centralized "data commons" that will guide public and private sector efforts to gather, clean, protect, and share data. This work is being advanced by the UN, NGOs, academic institutions, and innovative organizations like Kenya’s Ushahidi and San Francisco’s Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. These groups foresee the application of big data to persistent challenges in the areas of health, public services, agriculture, financial services for the poor, and disaster relief. To be sure, there are obstacles to overcome - privacy and security, data quality, incentivizing private companies to share data, and a dearth of data mining and analysis expertise. But the singular importance of mobile phone-generated data throughout the developing world presents a clearer path to data gathering and usage. And the potential benefits to sharing and aggregating data are becoming more evident each day.