Digital Footprints in Africa

3 min read

A data revolution is underway in Africa. As in the rest of the world, this data revolution started quietly but it continues to advance rapidly. In order to recognize the signs of data revolutions, we need a new mindset. We need to look at data in different and innovative ways.

Digital devices have become very important to our daily routines. They serve as instruments that record our actions and generate digital footprints. The digital footprints are registered when we take actions using digital devices, or express opinions online. This happens for example, when we call a relative with our mobile, search the Internet for information on our favorite sport or pay the electricity bill with mobile money. Digital footprints are also generated when we express opinions on social media, when we respond to mobile surveys or when we express our views on radio talk shows.

Because these footprints, and their meanings, are somewhat hidden it requires "different eyes" to see them and understand their meaning. That's where data science comes in. Let us show you some examples what digital footprints look like once they have been made visible:

Understanding human mobility:

Human mobility is relevant to development in many ways and understanding mobility patterns can help in the definition of urban planning strategies. This video shows the trajectories of motorcycle taxis, known locally as "boda bodas", around Kampala, Uganda. It depicts the speed of each boda boda using different colour codes to represent high and low speeds. The anonymized source data is several days worth of data generated by motorcycle anti-theft system developed by a Ugandan startup (Thin Void), which was then analysed and visualized by Pulse Lab Kampala.

Observing vegetation growth:

Changes in vegetation can be an important indicator of changes in economic activity, well-being and vulnerability to shocks within a community. Using satellite images obtained from U.S. Geological Survey, this time-lapse video created by Pulse Lab Kampala shows the changing vegetation within Uganda during the 2013 calendar year. Increases and decreases in vegetation in a given region are due to factors such as seasonal change and harvests.

Analyzing trends in peoples’ opinions:

Topics of discussion and prominent coverage in the news are indicators of important issues in a community. Pulse Lab Kampala created a tool which tracked and catalogued mentions of sustainable development related topics such as education, poverty and disease in the online versions of Uganda’s most popular newspapers. The video shows which topics are the most prominent by region: the thickness of the lines in the diagram reflects the popularity of the topic.

More digital devices means more digital data

Usage of digital devices increasing fast in Africa, and thus more and more digital footprints are being generated. Internet World Statistics estimates that there were around 308 million Internet users in 2014 (as of Dec 31), with a 26.6% penetration rate. Internet usage is expected to grow exponentially in the continent because of the explosion of mobile phone usage. The Uganda Communications Commission estimates around 4.2 million Internet subscribers via mobile phone versus 106,000 fixed Internet subscribers (data for 2014). Researches estimate that the mobile data usage will grow 20 times before the end of the decade, or twice the rate of anticipated global expansion. A decade ago, Nigeria for example had around 100,000 phone lines. Today, in 2015, there are around 140 million active mobile phone lines.

So what's next? Moving from pilots to scale

Innovative methodologies to harness new data have been developed through academia and in the private sector over the course of the past few decades. A large number of pilots, prototypes and proof-of-concepts have been completed in Africa to illustrate the potential use of these methodologies to promote data innovation and to support sustainable development. Measures focusing on encouraging the large-scale deployment of innovations, rather than the initial phases of idea and prototype generation, are particularly useful now.


IMAGE: Motorcycle taxis, known as boda-bodas, are one of the main forms of transport in Uganda. (Source:

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