Our Contributions to Sustainable Development with Data and Analytics

Fabien Girardin News&References

This week, our Head of Urban Data Services & Applications, Juan Murillo Arias traveled to Cape Town to attend the first meeting of the UN World Data Forum, an initiative that seeks to foster cooperation with a wide array of professional groups, such as information technology, geospatial information managers, data scientists, and users, as well as civil society stakeholders. The meeting provided an excellent opportunity to catch up with Juan and learn more about how data analytics can help support sustainable development. Here is an approximate transcript of his contribution to the forum in the Big Data Innovations for sustainable development session.

You have been a member of BBVA Data & Analytics since day one. Could you give us a brief introduction and an overview of BBVA’s experience with big data analytics:

Juan: BBVA Data & Analytics is part of BBVA Group, a global corporation that provides financial services to 67 million customers, mainly in Spain, Turkey, the U.S. and Latin America. We are a center of excellence in financial data analysis that spun off from the BBVA Innovation Center three years ago. Our mission is to extract value from big data through the development of innovative solutions for BBVA, its customers and for third parties. Our teams are based in Madrid, Barcelona and Mexico City and boast more than 40 data scientists and engineers, many of them holding Ph.D.’s in Artificial Intelligence and a deep knowledge of finance and banking.

“There is great value in anonymized and aggregated data sets, and our customer base represents a relevant sample of the population across several geographies.”

At BBVA we use data-driven applications for many different purposes: to deliver better products and services to our customers, by gaining a deeper understanding of their needs and preferences (customized solutions); to detect & prevent fraud; to enhance our risk management practices; for client segmentation and marketing purposes, and to improve financial inclusion by developing digital contracts thanks to which people in rural areas can get access to banking services without visiting a bank branch.

How did BBVA realize that putting its data-related insights to work to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) was an opportunity?

Juan: As any private corporation with millions of customers, each interaction through our digital channels generates behavioral data. Most of the players in the big data industry have become aware that it provides them with a very powerful lever to improve their services and adapt them to the needs of each customer. But the value we can get by transforming data into customized information goes beyond improving customer experiences. There is also tremendous value in anonymized and aggregated data sets, and our customer base represents a relevant sample of the population across several geographies. By analyzing this high-resolution behavioral data, we have been able to produce detailed representations of both flows of people and money that are useful to better understand the dynamics within a specific region. For instance, we can measure tourist flows based on their digital footprint in economic activities. Similarly, in a collaboration project with United Nations Global Pulse, we have been able to map the economic impact of Hurricane Odile in Baja California Sur, Mexico, by comparing socio-economic behaviors before, during and after the natural disaster.

Many of the human activities related to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals involve a transaction that must be processed (e.g. access to clean energy or responsible consumption). That is why we are very happy to share this new knowledge with any stakeholder capable of transforming them into initiatives that can contribute to, eventually, spread prosperity, speed up recovery after a negative event, or measure progress and trends in the achievement of the SDGs over a period of time. Our intent is to contribute to make data-driven decisions evident – and not the exception – for all: governments, NGOs, citizens, and corporations.

What does this represent from a business standpoint? Is it corporate responsibility? A new business model? A hybrid?

Juan: We do not believe very much in a model purely based on corporate social responsibility. However, depending on the focus of the project and other returns, we have exceptionally maintained some partnerships with no economic counterpart. We believe in a hybrid model in which we provide our expertise in aggregated data to third parties and we allocate part of the profits to social good initiative. That allows us to keep the whole activity sustainable.

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“Our intent is to contribute to make data-driven decisions evident, and not the exception, for all: governments, NGOs, citizens, and corporations.”

How were you able to sell this idea internally?

Juan: First of all, we worked very closely with different areas within BBVA to make this kind of projects possible, we collaborated with our legal compliance areas and key stakeholders to make sure we were applying the most rigorous protocols in terms of security and privacy protection.

Second, we identified the three key benefits that we felt our involvement in socially responsible projects could yield from a data standpoint, namely:

  1. Driving innovation. When we employ a certain type of data for the first time for a new purpose that opens new perspectives and helps us learn.
  2. Attracting talent. Invitation to join our team, contributing to socially responsible projects and charitable initiatives and getting involved with the networks that are emerging around them is a source of motivation.
  3. Setting us apart from other financial institutions, helping us communicate the results of our digital transformation process.

Many people feel that big data is empowering a few people in detriment of larger groups. Has working for the common good changed your relationship with customers?

Juan: Much like any technological innovation has done in the past, big data has opened the door to a new world of opportunities and threats. Frankly, I don’t think big data is empowering a few at the expense of larger parts of society. On the contrary: cloud technology and data science skills are allowing many startups to disrupt the traditional market share of big players in many fields -from leisure and entertainment, to e-commerce– offering advantages for end-customers, who can now enjoy more affordable and customized services; this can be seen as a democratization enabled by big data solutions.

Regarding our customers, we follow two guidelines:

  1. With our responsible data use policy, we comply with the most recent legal standards, and communicate our big data initiatives in a transparent manner.
  2. We do our best to bring all those opportunities associated with big data applications to our customers, safeguarding their interests at all times. And we do this through a new range of services: Some of them are aimed at improving their financial skills and helping them to better manage their finances, others try to provide access to lending without increasing risks for the bank, or to provide business intelligence data-based solutions to SMEs. Other projects are aimed at society as a whole. Indeed, we strongly believe that any progress or success achieved in data analytics can bring benefits for society as a whole.

What does a successful public-private partnership that seeks to harness data for the benefit of society look like?

Juan: An ideal public-private partnership is the one that strikes the right balance between all parties’ contributions:

A public partner ideally knows the problem that needs to be addressed, and the kind of actions that should be supported by the conclusions and results, in order to arrive at a useful data-driven solution that improves the life of those who are vulnerable.

A private partner generally brings the methodology, often the analytic skills and, sometimes, a private data source (though there are many rich public data sources as well) to the equation. Analysts generally work under the guidance of the public stakeholder, and co-create the insights that the public counterpart can turn into solutions, thanks to their better understanding of the issue, the territory, and its local features.