How can data from telecoms operators assist humanitarian missions and public works in Africa? This is the field that Sébastien Deletaille, a Belgian entrepreneur, who was one of the winners of the 2015 Innovator Under 35 (Belgium) awards conferred by the MIT Technology Review, is focusing on.

[Portrait of an Innovator] Sébastien Deletaille draws on telecoms data to predict food crises

An innovator?

A graduate from one of the top business schools in Belgium – the Solvay Business School – Sébastien Deletaille at first set out along a well-trodden path, that of a business analyst. This is the career he embarked on as soon as he completed his studies, joining multinational management consulting firm McKinsey. ‟It’s a very exciting firm with exceptional people working there,” he says, but the work nevertheless lacked something that this young man was looking for: entrepreneurial adventure. Two years after joining McKinsey, he left to become a startup entrepreneur.

‟We started out from the boring old adage that there was too much unused data.”

He founded three startups, one after the other. It was third time lucky. This was Real Impact Analytics, a company he set up in 2009 to create value from data coming from the telecommunications sector. ‟We started out from the boring old adage that there was too much unused data,” he reveals. The startup very soon began to work in emerging countries, from São Paulo in Brazil to Cape Town in South Africa.

The innovation?

It was in Africa that Sébastien Deletaille and his team came across a new challenge: ‟We came into contact with organisations such as the Gates Foundation, whose people explained to us that data drawn from telephone operators could contribute a great deal to development aid planning.” At that time, humanitarian aid providers had little or no available data on which to base their work.

Hence the idea of Data for Good. This initiative is intended to make the link between telecoms operators and humanitarian organisations. In short, Big Data in support of good causes. The way Real Impact Analytics works is to identify an issue for each partner organisation and then to get to grips with how anonymous telecoms data can help. This is very similar to the thinking behind French multinational telecoms corporation Orange’s Data for Development programme.

The STEP project, part of the Data for Good programme, is intended to help prevent epidemics

So what impact is this having?

Data for Good subsumes a number of initiatives. The one that MIT recognised in its Awards a few weeks ago uses information from pre-paid phone cards in Africa to predict potential food crises. ‟It may seem rather surreal but the way people buy their prepaid cards tells us a lot about how much money they have,” explains Deletaille. A well-off user will buy very few cards for large amounts, while a poorer customer will tend to purchase a lot of cards for very small amounts as s/he does not have enough money to pay more upfront.

This information can then be used to draw up a map of poverty levels and track how these change, in near-real time. In order to anticipate food crises, the Data for Good team draw on data from farmers, especially their assumed poverty levels and how much they move around, once again building up a picture from information drawn from purchases of prepaid phone cards. Aggregating this data enables the team to predict where food crises are likely to erupt.

And what does the future hold?

After Africa, will the future for Data for Good switch to Europe? Sébastien Deletaille smiles at the question. He points out that developing countries are much more advanced and nimble when it comes to using data. ‟In Europe we’re just starting out, at a sort of prototyping stage. In emerging countries, on the other hand, we’re already looking at scaling up in order to be able to expand our local service,” he reveals.

‟In Europe we’re just starting out (…). In emerging countries, on the other hand, we’re already looking at scaling up in order to be able to expand our local service.”

Nevertheless, the idea of extending Real Impact Analytics activities, especially the Data for Good programme, to the Old Continent is still going round in his head, and some very concrete ideas are emerging: ‟The issues are on a different scale. Take the traffic jams in Paris for example. This is a real problem for society in the sense that it represents a huge waste – in terms of time, the environment and human energy.” The Belgian-born entrepreneur is confident that his company has the knowhow to play a role here. ‟Telecoms data could help to draw up an urban mobility map and to re-plan the Paris public transport system accordingly. Sometimes very small changes can make a huge difference. In one city in Germany, moving a metro exit a few dozen metres away was enough to really improve people flows in that area,” underlines Sébastien Deletaille.

By Guillaume Scifo