Digital gains: Unlocking mobile data for real-time policymaking

September 3, 2020 7:15 AM

The government has now a considerable database thanks to Aarogya Setu app, which it can effectively use to formulation plethora of policy prescriptions.

In India, this type of research has not yet started and perhaps not a single attempt has been made to harness the power of at least 1.2 crore mobile data users.In India, this type of research has not yet started and perhaps not a single attempt has been made to harness the power of at least 1.2 crore mobile data users.

By Soumya Kanti Ghosh, Pulak Ghosh & Sanjay Basu

The vast quantity of information that is produced as a passive by-product of the use of mobile network services holds a great promise as a transformative resource for social good. Numerous pilot and research projects have shown the feasibility of using mobile data to predict or track disease outbreaks, improve transportation flows, and to respond more effectively in humanitarian crises. United Nations, in its report, “The State of Mobile Data for Social Good”, identifies over 200 projects or studies leveraging mobile data for social good, surveys the landscape today, assesses the current barriers to scale, and makes recommendations for a way forward.

Recent research using Rwanda’s largest mobile phone network is used to examine the extent to which anonymised data from mobile phone networks can be used to predict the poverty and wealth of individual subscribers, as well as to create high-resolution maps of the geographic distribution of wealth. That this may prove fruitful is motivated by the fact that mobile phone data captures rich information, not only on the frequency and timing of communication events but also reflecting the intricate structure of an individual’s social network, patterns of travel and location choice, and histories of consumption and expenditure.

Regionally aggregated measures of phone penetration and use have also been shown to correlate with regionally aggregated population statistics from censuses and household surveys.

In the US, using the mobile location data during Covid-19, disease experts said that those who reduced their travel to less than a mile a day, on average, from about five miles might sharply curb the spread of the coronavirus, at least for now. It is also observed that in areas where public officials have resisted or delayed stay-at-home orders, people changed their habits far less. Though travel distances in those places have fallen drastically, they were still typically more than three times those in areas that had imposed lockdown orders.

Further, the mobility data provides a snapshot in time, and the behaviours it captures could change amid a fast-moving crisis. Although several public policy experts who reviewed the data said it strongly indicated that wealthier people are better able to stay home, they added that there could be other reasons for the differences-perhaps higher awareness of the risks or better access to information. Interestingly, the data points to clear holes in the government’s response to the pandemic’s fallout for low-income workers, which has primarily focused on those who have lost their jobs because of shutdowns and not on those with essential duties.

In India, this type of research has not yet started and perhaps not a single attempt has been made to harness the power of at least 1.2 crore mobile data users. The government has now a considerable database thanks to Aarogya Setu app, which it can effectively use to formulation plethora of policy prescriptions. With the help of location or travel data, the government can identify those who are in more need for support.

Specifically, the call records of a vast swathe of migrant workers who have travelled back from across states as well as within states could be effectively used for skilling, redeploying and even validating the database with the existing databases like PMJDY, Ujjwala, PMAY, Ayushman Bharat etc. This will give the government a clear idea of the intended beneficiaries and also building up a credit history of such borrowers at the bottom of the pyramid.

Interestingly, more often than not, a range of challenges are cited by regulatory authorities, particularly in India, which prevent the use of telecommunication data to shape policy and related decisions. These issues are juxtaposed with the fundamental right to privacy, thus bridled with the allegation of state surveillance and orchestrated breach of privacy. In India, there is no direct provision that regulates the government’s ability to requisition telecommunication data for policy purposes or otherwise. Moreover, the Supreme Court, in the case of Justice KS Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union of India, held that privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution. Thus, a delicate balance must be struck between the government’s ability to requisition telecommunication data to inform policy decisions and intrusion into the privacy of individuals.

A parallel is drawn to the power of the UK government to requisition telecommunication and related data for public purposes. The aforementioned power has undergone a metamorphosis, from Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, 2014 to Investigatory Powers Act, 2016 to Data Retention and Acquisition Regulation, 2018 and a reference can also be drawn to Corona Virus Act, 2020. Since its inception, retention and requisitioning authority of the government has been a matter of debate due to its overreach. The DRI Act and IA Act have been successfully challenged before the Court of Justice of the European Union. However, what has been uniform throughout is the need for the government to have access (though contoured and regulated) to telecommunication data for certain purposes. A recent example being the power of the government to requisition telecommunication data to fight the public health emergency under the CV Act.

Similarly, in India, there exists a need for the government to access telecommunication and related data for informing prudent policy decisions. However, this needs to be balanced with the concerns of privacy. In this regard, reference may be drawn to Section 91 (2) of The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 which enables the Centre to inter alia requisition any personal data ‘anonymised’ or other non-personal data for formulation of evidence-based policies, in consultation with authority proposed to be set up under the said Bill. Further, fundamental rights such as the right to privacy under the Constitution are not absolute and are subject to restrictions imposed under Article 19 (2), provided the measures meet the doctrine of proportionality.

The Indian government must access telecommunication data to make prudent policy decisions and not use it as an alibi for privacy breaches; this will only harm evidence-based policy decisions.

Soumya Kanti Ghosh is group chief economic advisor, State Bank of India, Pulak Ghosh is a professor at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and Sanjay Basu is a partner in Aquilaw law firm

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