“The future does not predict, it prepares,” says the philosopher Maurice Blondel. Used in many areas to analyse human activities, data could occupy a central place in safeguarding the planet in the long term by transforming decision-making. Nicolas de Cordes, VP Marketing Anticipation at Orange, and Emmanuel Letouzé, Director and Co-founder of the non-profit think thank Data-Pop Alliance, reflect on the issue further.
“Tech for good” has dominated the news in recent weeks, especially at Viva Tech. What’s the concrete reality behind it?
Nicolas de Cordes: Modelling population movement, developing statistical indicators of poverty or literacy… the world of sustainable development realised that it’s possible to look at society under the microscope thanks to Big Data and then use it for the common good. Tech for good is a movement that uses technology to understand humans, taking into account the ethical dimension related to data governance.
Emmanuel Letouzé: We’re in a period today where the phenomenon is gaining ground across all continents, linked to the rapid deployment of technologies over the last 10 years. The fact that Tech for good is scaling up in an ethical way raises the question of systems and standards for managing data in terms of technology, governance…
Can you give us some concrete examples of the positive impact of data, for example on ecology?
N.d.C.: In the context of international climate measures, stakeholders used large amounts of data: animal migrations, oceanographic data, rainfall volumes ... By processing it they could measure phenomena that are not always perceptible, like global warming.
E.L.: At the moment, data is often used in the context of a single project, and analysed “in reaction” to a phenomenon. The challenge is to move from episodic to systematic measures to better understand the evolutions of a phenomenon or even to anticipate them. The other challenge is the scale: open data and data sharing projects will have a major role in international analysis. Working on new standards and systems could help make a real difference.
Until we’re able to save the planet thanks to data?
N.d.C.: We believe data can lead to different decision-making, whatever the field of activity, starting at the top. We’re the first generation to have this tool to hand!
E.L.: Well-used, clear, solid and objective information can become a weapon against dictatorships or corrupt regimes and therefore contribute to greater transparency and reduced global poverty. But this implies a cultural change that needs to be driven in depth.
Data provides accurate information, on a global scale and at the right time for making decisions: it will therefore have a key influence on the world’s progress.
In a business context, the cross-fertilisation of various data sources means business strategies can be refined. Can it work in a similar way for managing projects focused on human development?
E.L.: We use various types of data for our projects. Massive data such as “digital crumbs” come mainly from phones, credit cards or the web. Open data includes information that’s official or available on the web (such as open street map) to understand population density or urban structure. And satellite data gives us information about the landscape for example.
N.d.C.: CCrossing the data creates value. For example, during the Data Climate for Action challenge (a United Nations initiative promoting Big Data innovation for humanitarian purposes), the winner crossed data from Orange Senegal with rainfall rates during floods in Dakar to understand the routes people were taking. This would enable them to deploy solutions to anticipate population movements and assist aid convoys.
How do you ensure data sharing practices are carried out in an ethical and secure way?
E.L.: The General Data Protection Regulation clarifies what relates to people and what doesn’t. It defines three main categories of authorised data use: statistics, historical analysis and more general research to benefit society. Respecting anonymity and encryption are conditions.
N.d.C.: It’s true that a certain amount of data pertaining to user behaviour can be collected without them knowing. As an operator, we know who’s calling, where and when. That information can be used for billing and to develop accurate profiles. This may seem intrusive but when it’s transformed into statistical indicators it can be relevant for development projects. You have to find the balance on a case-by-case basis.
Can you tell us more about OPAL projects and why they’re innovative?
N.d.C.: OPAL stands for Open Algorithm. The project aims to demonstrate that secure and ethical data exploitation from private companies is possible and that it can benefit sustainable development. In concrete terms, OPAL will make it possible, for example, to use call statistics to establish population displacement models and estimate the risks in the event of an epidemic, or transport needs. The project will also analyse regional mobile usage statistics to estimate poverty or literacy rates. Through a question-and-answer system used on aggregated data, companies can respect people’s privacy and limit business risks.
E.L.: In health, education or agriculture there are considerable opportunities in terms of understanding population or regional needs through data from private companies. OPAL represents one such movement around the transparency of algorithms for giving companies access to data in realistic and secure conditions – without exposing it.
More than a platform of indicators, the OPAL project promotes a vision to make data access easier and equitable for all stakeholders, placing it at the heart of public life.
What’s Orange’s role in the OPAL project? What’s in it for a large operator to play the opening card?
N.d.C.: As a co-founder, Orange supports the project management while our labs work on the interfaces and algorithms necessary to deploy it. We’re testing a first version of the platform in Senegal, in partnership with Sonatel and the National Statistics Agency. This forms part of our R&D and CSR policy but it also improves our capabilities in terms of Big Data and how to create value from it in the longer term. For example? Helping to develop an ecosystem of local data-based services will better support the country’s development and increase the demand for the indicators that Orange can offer.
E.L.: Geographical and technical knowledge in new areas is very useful to an operator’s multi-services strategy, as they can position themselves in the long term in areas such as e-health and smart agri. Data is a diversification lever for operators, and also for banks and energy providers.