Using Mobile Data for Development

This guide, written by Ed Naef, Philipp Muelbert, Syed Raza, Raquel Frederick, Jake Kendall and Nirant Gupta for Cartesian and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, provides an examination of the use of mobile data collection in developing countries including how it can be leveraged for a range of development goals and potential obstacles that may be faced.


"Before conducting research with mobile data, one must understand mobile networks and data stores in some detail. This paper aims to increase awareness amongst researchers and development leaders of the power of mobile data for development goals, to illustrate in more detail how data is gathered, what type of data exists in mobile networks, and to explore ways to overcome barriers to its use. Specifically this paper:

  • Provides an overview of how people in the developing world adopt and use mobile phones.
  • Illustrates how these behaviors generate mobile data that can be extracted from mobile networks, what kind of data is available, and how it can be interpreted.
  • Identifies some of the ways mobile data can be leveraged for a range of development goals.
  • Presents potential obstacles to using mobile data and ways to remove those barriers so it can be made accessible in appropriate ways.
  • Provides an overview of key privacy rules and some of the ways to address the important requirement of maintaining user data privacy."


  • Adoption and Usage of Mobile Phones in Developing Countries 6
    • Mobile Adoption Rates Are High in Developing Countries 6
    • Rates of Mobile Ownership and Usage Are Equally High among the Poor 8
    • Usage Patterns in Developing Countries Differ from Those in the Developed World 11
  • What Is Captured in Mobile Data Systems? 14
    • How a Mobile Network Functions 14
    • Mobile Data Captures a Wide Range of Customer Behaviors 16
    • How Mobile Data Is Captured From User Interactions 19
    • How Mobile Data Can Determine a Person’s Location 21
    • Gauging the Availability and Accessibility of Data 23
    • Understanding and Interpreting Different Kinds of Mobile Data 23
  • Present and Possible Applications 26
    • Potential Insights from Mobile Data 26
    • Mobile Operators Are Beginning to Exploit Mobile Data 27
    • Current Uses of Mobile Data in Development Programs 29
    • Future Opportunities to Leverage Mobile Data 32
    • Should Mobile Data for Philanthropic Use Be Free? 33
  • Regulatory Landscape and Data Privacy Considerations 35
    • Regulatory Regimes Are Becoming Clearer and More Standardized 35
  • Considerations for Data Sharing 43
    • Sensitivities around Mobile Data Access 43
    • Commercial Sensitivities around Data Access 43
    • Public Opinion Plays a Role 44
    • Approaches to Protecting Data Privacy 44 


Naef, E.; Muelbert, P.; Raza, S.; Frederick, R.; Kendall, J.; and Gupta, N. (2014). Using Mobile Data for Development, Cartesian and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from: (archived link)

'Using Mobile Data for Development' is referenced in: