A team of researchers at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, USA has been working on the idea of using mobile phone data to help plan the development of power networks in developing countries. Other projects along similar lines are also under way.

Mobile phone data could help plan electricity infrastructure in Africa

Could phone data be the key to economic development in Senegal? A team from the Santa Fe Institute in the United States and the University of Manchester in the UK certainly think so. They have just published a report in which they set out to show how important this data is as a basis for planning the development of electric power infrastructure in a country where 70% of the rural population has no electricity. Despite the lack of power infrastructure, close to 95% of all Senegalese carry cell phones.

Electricity coverage in Senegal: a large percentage of the country is still in the dark

"New, data-driven insight allows us to predict local infrastructure needs with an accuracy that has never been possible before"


Eduardo Martinez-Cesena and Pierluigi Mancarella, academic researchers and teachers at the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Manchester, thought it might be feasible to use mobile phone data as a basis for planning a more efficient power network in Senegal. They used anonymised cell phone data – time and length of calls, which local antennae were used to transmit a call, etc – in order to obtain a clear picture of the population’s electricity requirements.  The main advantage of such a method is that the data is gathered in real time and you can see immediately the impact electrification is likely to have on a given area: there will be greater night-time activity and the locality is likely to attract more residents. "This new, data-driven insight into the population dynamics allows us to predict local infrastructure needs with an accuracy that has never been possible before," claims Markus Schläpfer, a postdoctoral fellow at the Santa Fe Institute who is one of the study’s co-authors, in a communiqué.

Phone use metrics are especially useful in regions where census data is outdated or entirely lacking. A few months ago, geographers at the Catholic University of Leuven and the Free University of Brussels in Belgium put forward a plan to exploit mobile phone data for the purpose of taking a population census. It should be noted that researchers on all these projects claim to uphold the principle of anonymising data in order to guarantee privacy for information that may well be highly confidential.

Data anonymisation is in fact one of the prerequisites for entries to the Data for Development (D4D) innovation challenge set up by French multinational telecommunications corporation Orange. The company gave researchers access to its data for Senegal this year, having done so for Côte d’Ivoire in 2014. Some 150 teams used this information to devise projects, among them the team from the University of Manchester and the Santa Fe Institute who, working with support from the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal’s capital Dakar, won both the Energy category award and the overall First Prize in the D4D competition. Winners in the other categories used the data to tackle the management of health emergencies (Practical Applications category), the fluctuation of the price of millet (Agriculture category) and the impact of population movements on the spread of malaria (Health category). A large number of projects addressing a wide variety of issues were entered. So does mobile phone data have the potential to help solve any and every problem?


By Guillaume Scifo