Big Human Data: What are Call Detail Records?

Around the world, we all love to talk, text and browse the internet with our mobile phones. Whenever we use the phones in our pockets to send SMS, make phone calls, send money or use mobile data the operators providing network service to our handsets are creating data. This metadata is a Call Detail Records or CDR.

A CDR contains information such as the time of day and a rough location where the activity took place, but never the content which was sent, be it voice message or an SMS. Network operators then use this information for billing purposes, understanding the network or business performance and other commercial activities, but, it can also be used for social good!

Currently, over three quarters of the world’s population has access to a mobile phone. At the same time, financial services are accessible to a significantly smaller number of people: the growth of mobile phone usage simply hasn’t mirrored the ease of access to financial services.

Mobile money provides an opportunity to overcome this gap. Countries such as Tanzania are already world leaders in mobile money transactions, with over 90% of the population having potential access to a financial services on their mobile phone. This information when combined with other forms of CDR data can be used to gain insights into detailed behavioral and geo-demographic patterns that are currently unobtainable in most of the developing world. How is what we’re researching as part of N-Lab.

CDR data is used as part of N-LAB’s ongoing research to understand rapidly changing cities. This research involved understanding the physical makeup of cities, commuting and wider transport trends affecting everyday live. This is becoming more important than ever, as more of the world’s population is moving from rural areas to urban centers and we are estimated to have the majority of the global population live in cities by 2017.

While this data holds incredible promise for solving a host of issues in developing nations it also raises ethical and privacy concerns which will be discussed in a follow-on blog post.

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