By Kevin Howell

Mobile technology and the Internet of Things have led to the expansion of big data, which is the collection and exchange of massive amounts of data that businesses use to gain insights into customers and operations.

Every digital process, system, sensor, camera, and mobile device transmits information. Companies are using that data to optimize operations, improve services, market products, and increase revenue.

But beyond business functions, big data offers inspiring possibilities to aid the poor and developing world.

Much of the lower-income population is gaining access to mobile phones. According to Pew Research, 54 percent of adults in the developing world use the internet, and about 37 percent own a smartphone.

Since so much data is collected from mobile phones, it presents a unique opportunity for the developing world to benefit from big data. The United Nations is taking advantage of the technology with Global Pulse, an innovation lab that aims to help policymakers use big data tools to understand human well-being and emerging vulnerabilities.

Here are some ways big data is impacting the developing world.


Data collected from mobile devices presents a promising opportunity to not only improve healthcare services for the underprivileged but also prevent the spread of disease in vulnerable areas.

Organizations have already been using mobile data to monitor and prevent outbreaks. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, researchers used mobile data to monitor a cholera outbreak. Data from SIM cards allowed officials to track the movement of people from affected zones and prepare for new outbreaks.

Big data also helps with distribution of medication. The program SMS for Life improved the distribution of malaria drugs in Tanzania by monitoring facilities that were low on stock and replenishing them as needed.


Most developing communities rely on local agriculture for survival. Unexpected food shortages lead to hunger or even displacement, as families must relocate to find food. Data can help predict food production, as well as monitor drought conditions that affect crops.

By monitoring food purchases at markets as well as subsidies through mobile devices, officials can track the availability of certain crops. Monitoring allows governments to ensure proper crop storage and pinpoint areas that need assistance.

To monitor and predict the effects of drought, UN Global Pulse and the World Food Programme developed a tool that fuses several databases to visualize the extent of drought-affected areas, the impacts on markets, and the population of poor residents. It’s currently being used in Indonesia.


Residents of developing countries are increasingly gaining access to banks and financial services through mobile devices. There has been a 13 percentage point increase in account ownership in developing nations in recent years.

Information from mobile financial services can provide insights into people’s spending and saving habits as well as give them access to micro-loans and insurance coverage as they build credit histories.

Big data is not just about helping businesses prosper, it’s about improving the lives of the underprivileged as well. Healthcare, agriculture, and financial services are just a few of the areas big data is improving in the developing world.

How can big data help your community? Do you have an idea of how analytics and monitoring can improve people’s lives? If so, EPICS in IEEE can help you get started by providing funding for your project. Find out more at