Each day, our intensive use of information technologies generates trillions of data bytes termed “Big Data”. Some big data has a high socio-behavioural value and may therefore be of use in producing decision-making tools. By using the constant streams of data to improve public services, these tools can transform cities in developing countries into smart cities.

The impacts of mobile telephony in the economic, social and environment sectors are clearly evident. For many, network access is a key factor in their empowerment and in overcoming their social exclusion. Although mobile phone services, including banking, healthcare, rural and agricultural development and education, have had major socio-economic impacts, some even transforming society profoundly, the sector is on the brink of yet more significant breakthroughs. The emergence of Big Data, or mass processing of data, heralds a revolution that will completely change life as we know it.

The boom in telecommunications and their omnipresence in our daily lives go hand in hand with generating huge quantities of data from telephony, as well as social networks, images, videos, GPS signals or even online transactions. This data exchange generates 2.5 trillion bytes of data each day1 and this mass of information is the basis for Big Data, which can help transform public development policies in Africa.

Becoming a smart city: the Big Data revolution is underway

Several initiatives have been proposed in industrialised countries to use this data to improve the way cities are managed. Exploiting data leads to concrete applications which improve transport management, service provision and even risk management. In Africa, however, few countries have the structures or infrastructures capable of storing or generating the socio-behavioural data required to underpin their public policies. Several questions arise in light of this stream of information: what use value can this data have? How do you manage, secure and process this data? What ethical framework must be defined to respect customers’ privacy?

Along with strategic partners including the Catholic University of Leuven, MIT, UN Global Pulse, the World Economic Forum and the Gates Foundation, Orange organised the “Data 4 Development Challenge” to offer some answers to these questions. Designed to be an open innovation challenge on mass ICT data2 for social development, the event comprised two sessions: the first in Côte d’Ivoire in 2012/2013 and the second in Senegal in 2014/2015.

Our telephones are a mine of information. When combined with processing algorithms, this source of information can provide high-quality socio-behavioural data that can be used to more accurately characterise group dynamics. The participants worked on the telephone call detail record within the operator’s network which are generated for customer billing purposes. For ethical reasons, this data was anonymised, then aggregated and converted into indicators, thus preventing access to any personal or confidential information on a particular individual or group of individuals. Two main data sets emerge from this process, one relating to social networks and the other to mobility flows.

This data can be used to produce actual maps containing socio-economic development indicators, the spread of epidemics or disaster alerts. Having access to top-quality reliable and recent data is certainly the key to modern and effective urban policymaking. In the near future, improving the management of cities will rely in part on the ethical exploitation of this type of data.

Big Data will make a strategic contribution to the advent of smart cities, which aim to reconcile “participatory governance and enlightened management of natural resources to address the needs of institutions, businesses and citizens” (UN-Habitat, 2013). The concept of smart cities embodies a new vision of urban management made possible by new technologies, including telecoms. Telephony therefore has a leading role to play in the distribution of essential services, such as transport, public amenities, safety, energy, agriculture, education and health, particularly for guiding urban policies – an area in which Orange is particularly interested.

Big Data within the reach of African cities

While smart cities are mainly concentrated in industrialised countries, a few large cities in emerging and developing countries can be added to the list. However, this phenomenon is practically unknown in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly due to a lack of technical expertise and a shortage of human resources (basic training), cultural resources (think in terms of the technology divide) and technical resources (low uptake among the operators involved). At the same time, African cities are seeing rapid demographic growth, with their populations set to reach the one billion mark by 2043. There is a risk of this expansion happening without the services to these populations improving accordingly. Many of these cities have outdated census records, obsolete maps and no traffic metering, coupled with failing infrastructures and demographic problems.

Nonetheless, the inhabitants of these major African cities are moving around and increasingly using their mobile phones, thus generating mobility indicators based on real-time positioning information – all high-value data. After processing to ensure anonymity, this data can be made available to the agencies in charge of managing cities for use in improving public services, for example by anticipating traffic flow and urban supplies and adapting the public transport service to peak demand. Thinking differently and developing new ways of exploiting data are the challenges presented by Orange in its “Data 4 Development” [D4D] project (see box). The data made available by Orange through this project has led to the publication of over 150 scientific papers3 and the real-time or off-line modelling of mobility management tools. These are all valuable tools for city authorities involved in the planning of their urban services.

Thus, six projects resulting from the D4D Senegal Challenge have already attracted funding from the Gates Foundation and are under development as the first essential step towards the design of recurrent operating services. The success of this pilot initiative will set the benchmark for similar future projects from Orange.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the National Statistical Institute is working to assess the impact on mobility of major transport infrastructures, such as the third bridge opened in December 2014 or the future light rail system. A framework for an operational project is being drawn up with the potential support of the French Development Agency (AFD), which wishes to become involved in producing such tools. There is no need to devise a new technology as one already exists and is up and running in France based on Flux Vision, a commercial service developed by Orange. Abidjanis seeking to establish itself as a connected city and to become a growth centre in the Gulf of Guinea alongside Accra and Lagos, and it would be the first city to benefit from this type of project.

This is a major innovation likely to be of interest to all main urban centres in emerging and developing countries with the potential for other applications and considerable growth. In industrialised countries, the smart cities movement can be seen as the logical progression for urban management, with public or private operators constantly pursuing innovation to enhance their service offering. In emerging and developing countries, by contrast, new technologies must be seen as a historic opportunity to rethink their urban management tools and respond to the huge challenges of creeping urbanisation. Moreover, these technologies offer inexpensive operating solutions, insofar as the infrastructures concerned are already being used and maintained.

The democratisation of smartphones in Africa currently stands at 15% and is expected to rise to 40–60% in the next five years. This level of penetration, combined with the reduction in data charges and African universities now offering telecoms courses making it possible to recruit locally, will facilitate the use of Big Data in urban management policies. Eventually, when it comes to planning or studying the impact of future or existing urban infrastructures, these decision-making tools can be quickly replicated, with the proviso that citizens’ privacy is protected, of course.

Ensuring data security

The large-scale exploitation of data gathered from human behaviour is only possible if it is part of a clear and easily-implemented ethical framework, the prime objective of which is the protection of privacy. National regulations, sometimes entirely non-existent, must evolve to encompass these new uses of collective interests. Legal issues regarding the right of citizens to view their personal data throughout its life are at the heart of the use of Big Data. Legislation in developed countries, particularly in Europe, is currently being adapted to find a balance between data usage and data protection. In fact, laws everywhere must change to encompass these new types of use. Harmonisation of these regulations is vital to facilitate and expedite the use of development applications based on the mass processing of data. Existing legal reference frameworks must be translated into national laws. On this point, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has provided general guidelines on the harmonisation of the legal and regulatory framework for the protection of personal data.

In industrialised countries, the move towards smart cities can be seen as a logical improvement in the management of cities, with public and private stakeholders constantly innovating to improve their services. In emerging and developing countries, new technologies may well provide a historic opportunity to develop the urban management tools which they currently lack. The technologies already exist and offer low-cost operating solutions. The data can be accessed without any special investment. An African city can thus benefit from the latest advances in technology and information management.

But the complexity of the problems – technical, human and ethical, security and privacy-related – call for a concerted and coherent commitment by all parties concerned, and the establishment of an adequate regulatory framework. Alongside other stakeholders in the value chain, development agencies must include these new technologies, particularly Big Data, in their remit. The major development aid operators, such as the AFD, the World Bank and the European Union, must adapt structurally to take into account this new domain and assist African countries in taking up this opportunity, helping them to develop a legal framework, the technical skills and trained human resources to fully exploit the potential offered by these new tools.


Source: Orange, 2013


Data for Development (D4D) Challenge
As a major telecommunications operator in Africa, Orange produces a large volume of digital data connected with its services (voice, data, SMS, etc.). To examine the benefit to be derived from this data and identify potential applications, Orange launched two “D4D Challenges”, one in Côte d’Ivoire in 2012 and the other in Senegal in 2014. These competitions were aimed at research centres. It supplied them with data that, for ethical reasons, had been anonymised, then aggregated and converted into indicators.
The tremendous response from the research community and the quality of the applications – particularly in the fields of urban infrastructure planning and health – demonstrated the pertinence of this approach. It confirmed the value of the socio-behavioural and economic information contained in this data, of particular value for developing countries. IBM’s AllAboard project bears witness to this. This innovative system for exploring urban mobility seeks to optimise the planning of a public transport network to improve journeys and enhance customer satisfaction. Location data from mobile phones is used to infer origin-destination flows in the city, which are then converted into travel routes on the existing transit network. Sequential travel patterns from individual call location data are used to propose new transit route options.
An optimisation model evaluates how the existing transport network can be improved to increase the number of lines, adjust the service offering and enhance user satisfaction, in terms of both travel and wait times. The AllAboard project, tested on SOTRA’s transport system in Abidjan, won the Orange D4D prize for “best contribution to development” for the potential of its practical application in the field and its capacity to provide an effective response to a major problem. Over 1,000 researchers from five continents participated in these two challenges, resulting in 143 research publications. A range of topics was explored, especially in the fields of transport, mobility and infrastructure, as well as health, national statistics, agriculture and energy (see www.orange.com/fr/D4D/les-projets).


Source: IBM, Winner of the first D4D Challenge in Côte d’Ivoire on the optimisation of the SOTRA public transport network for buses.


Notes de bas de page :

1 Source: IBM. Le Big Data à l’écoute de votre business, 2015 [Big Data serving your business, 2015]
2 Information Communications Technology
3 The wide range of topics explored include transport, mobility and infrastructure, as well as health, national statistics, agriculture and energy.

References :

IBM, 2015. Le Big Data à l’écoute de votre business. [Big Data serving your business, 2015] Website: https://www-01.ibm.com/software/fr/data/bigdata/
ONU-Habitat, 2013. Partenariat entre ONU-Habitat et l’Afrique. Optimiser les avantages de l’urbanisation. [UN-Habitat, 2013. Partnership between UN-Habitat and Africa. Optimising the advantages of urbanisation]. French version available at: