Society on the move: Dr Nuria Oliver on how data – and mobile phones – can make the world a better place

Data can help lift up society and make the world a better place, says Dr Nuria Oliver. And a key part of that: mobile phones.
Data, Tech, Nuria Oliver, Society, Mahindra Comviva, Technology, Equality, Empowerment, Future


Dr Nuria Oliver. Photo credit: Ester Perez Broto

It’s safe to say Indian telco Mahindra Comviva has a lot going on. After all, that’s a bit of a necessity – it happens to be headquartered in India, the world’s second-most populous nation and one of the most ultracompetitive telecommunications markets on earth.

But even amidst the fierce competition, it’s doing a fair bit to stand out – particularly when it comes to what it’s doing with data to make the world a better place. Take, for instance bringing renowned data scientist Dr Nuria Oliver onto its advisory board. Dr Oliver – director of research in data science at Vodafone, chief data scientist at Data-Pop Alliance and chief scientific advisor for the Vodafone Institute, among other titles – joined in July, bringing with her more than 20 years of research experience in the areas of human behaviour modelling and prediction from data and human-computer interaction. She also holds a PhD in perceptual intelligence from MIT, has worked at Microsoft Research, and as the first female scientific director at Telefónica R&D. Her work is well-known, with more than 150 scientific publications that have received about 14,000(!) citations. She is the co-inventor of 40 filed patents, and a regular keynote speaker at international conferences.

The key with data, she says, is making sure it’s personalised – and something that can be harnessed to be used for the greater good. “The goal is to develop technology that helps us,” she explains.

“The most personal computer, even in 2005, was the mobile phone.”

That level of personalisation means mobile phones – and the telcos that offer mobile services – are uniquely positioned for gleaming important insights about people. Dr Oliver explains that mobile phones are particularly ideal for gaining insights about underserved people or people living in underserved areas, as even in such circumstances almost everyone has a mobile phone – whereas in many areas having a bank account or access to another similar service that gathers personal data and then stores it somewhere might be rare. According to Dr Oliver, up to 1.7 billion (yes, that’s billion, with a “b”) people worldwide today might not have a bank account.

And what can we use all this data for? Dr Oliver says we’re already at the point where data can be an invaluable tool for dealing with the future effects of global climate change, as data gleaned from mobile phones can be used to predict mobility and where people live – and even help manage traffic flow to evacuate and save people more quickly when disaster strikes.

Another use: public health. Dr Oliver says data can be used to help predict the spread of infectious diseases – thus possibly stopping or even preventing a global pandemic, saving countless lives.

“For the first time in human history, we have access to this huge amount of data,” she explains.

“The implications are huge. The potential is huge.”

But data also needs to follow what Dr Oliver terms the FATEN principle. In short, data must have fairness (no discrimination), autonomy, accountability and augmentation (computers complementing people, not replacing them), transparency, education and beneficence (it must make a positive impact), and non-maleficence (minimising a negative impact). It also must be collected and analysed in a way where people are giving their informed consent (particularly if it involves personal data, like information about one’s health) – and not shared with others unless people give their informed consent for that, too.

“These are things we should demand.”

Dr Oliver’s sentiments are echoed by Comviva’s senior vice president and COO of digital services, Atul Madan. He says managing data will be key – which is where technologies such as artificial intelligence come in. This, he adds, will be especially importance given the explosion of Internet of Things (IoT) devices – all of which produce data; it’s simply too much for humans to keep track of on our own.

“It is no longer the same world it was 20 years ago,” he says.

“There’s a lot of innovation happening.”

Innovation, Madan adds, that Comviva is not only playing a role in – but innovation the Middle East can play a key role in during the years ahead, too.

“The Middle East is going to lead. That time is not far off.”

For her part, Dr Oliver says the future of data is female – at least when it comes to the humans going into the field who’ll be using data for the benefit of society.

“I am an optimist,” she explains.

“I believe in the massive benefits of technology. We need to educate more people and encourage more young people to go into this field, especially girls.”

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