Cell Phones, Bus Lines, and Privacy in Côte d’Ivoire

Nick Carney Grey

By Nick Carney • May 16, 2013

By this point it’s well-known that despite low levels of development throughout Africa, the continent contains an astounding number of cell phones. In fact, Africa now has over 650 million mobile subscribers, more than either the United States or the European Union. The potential benefits are numerous, and they don’t stop at mobile banking.

At a recent MIT conference, IBM researchers presented a paper suggesting that information culled from the millions of mobile phones could be used to improve transit systems. The researchers suggest that such data can be used to optimize bus routes, much as Oyster cards are being harnessed to increase efficiency on the London Tube.

The researchers utilized data from five million customers of the telecommunications company Orange in Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire. Of those subscribers, researchers used data from approximately 500,000 relevant phones from between December 2011 and April 2012 to examine transportation patterns. The IBM model determined that the addition of two bus routes and enhancement of a third would result in time savings of 10 percent for users, a substantial improvement.

In developing nations especially, such high-value information is incredibly difficult to obtain. Of course, real-time access to this information would have the potential to allow much more fluidity in response to issues in the system, much as IBM and other companies are implementing throughout other cities. Yet such systems would require an investment that would make them far less appealing in a city like Abidjan. Using existing cell-phone data eliminates this cost barrier and so would appear to be the obvious solution.

The biggest concern with such an approach, of course, would be privacy. To alleviate these worries, the data supplied by Orange was scrubbed of any personal information that could be used to identify particular individuals. Furthermore, the mobile phones in question are not “smart,” and cannot be tracked through apps like Google Maps; in the case of non-smartphones location data can only be acquired from the telecom firms themselves.

But if data analysis on this scale is to be employed with regularity, Côte d’Ivoire will need to determine the proper balance between protection of privacy and the efficiency gains available from access to mobile carriers’ massive amounts of data.

The question is perhaps more salient for developing countries than wealthy nations because there are fewer options to produce such valuable data. The balancing act between efficiency and privacy is a global question, and it has no easy answers.