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1.1 An ink blot

In the summer of 2009, mobile phones were ringing all across Rwanda. In addition to the millions of calls between family, friends, and business associates, about 1,000 Rwandans received a call from Joshua Blumenstock and his colleagues. The researchers were studying wealth and poverty by conducting a survey of people who had been randomly sampled from a database of 1.5 million customers from Rwanda’s largest mobile phone provider. Blumenstock and colleagues asked the participants if they wanted to participate in a survey, explained the nature of the research to them, and then asked a series of questions about their demographic, social, and economic characteristics.

Everything I have said up until now makes this sound like a traditional social science survey. But, what comes next is not traditional, at least not yet. They used the survey data to train a machine learning model to predict someone’s wealth from their call data, and then they used this model to estimate the wealth of all 1.5 million customers. Next, they estimated the place of residence of all 1.5 million customers by using the geographic information embedded in the call logs. Putting these two estimates together—the estimated wealth and the estimated place of residence—Blumenstock and colleagues were able to produce high-resolution estimates of the geographic distribution of wealth across Rwanda. In particular, they could produce an estimated wealth for each of Rwanda’s 2,148 cells, the smallest administrative unit in the country.

It was impossible to validate these estimates because no one had ever produced estimates for such small geographic areas in Rwanda. But, when Blumenstock and colleagues aggregated their estimates to Rwanda’s 30 districts, they found that their estimates were similar to estimates from the Demographic and Health Survey, the gold standard of surveys in developing countries. Although these two approaches produced similar estimates in this case, the approach of Blumenstock and colleagues was about 10 times faster and 50 times cheaper than the traditional Demographic and Health Surveys. These dramatically faster and lower cost estimates create new possibilities for researchers, governments, and companies (Blumenstock, Cadamuro, and On 2015).

In addition to developing a new methodology, this study is kind of like a Rorschach inkblot test; what people see depends on their background. Many social scientists see a new measurement tool that can be used to test theories about economic development. Many data scientists see a cool new machine learning problem. Many business people see a powerful approach for unlocking value in the digital trace data that they have already collected. Many privacy advocates see a scary reminder that we live in a time of mass surveillance. Many policy makers see a way that new technology can help create a better world. In fact, this study is all of those things, and that is why it is a window into the future of social research.