UPU reports on findings of postal big data study

UPU reports on findings of postal big data study

Analyzing global flows of postal items in an international physical network can provide critical insights into measuring national development with big data, plugging the gaps where data from digital networks is missing, according to new research from the Universal Postal Union (UPU), UN Global Pulse and University of Cambridge shows. According to the UPU, postal big data – in the form of billions of electronic data records generated by the physical movement of mail across borders – can shed an important light on the socio-economic wellbeing of countries, especially in those where data from digital networks is not available.

Using 14 million postal records from 187 countries, researchers demonstrated that this network of connections can provide indicators that are closely correlated to standard indicators of socio-economic status.

Four years of daily postal data (2010-2014) were explored and its network properties shown to approximate critical socio-economic indicators. The data revealed that postal activity has been on the rise since 2010, which could be accounted for by the parallel growth of global e-commerce. This, in turn, positions postal flows as a sustainable indicator of socio-economic activity.

This enabled the generation of proxies for a number of socio-economic indicators already in use by the United Nations and other international organizations to measure national wellbeing, including GDP per capita and the Human Development Index. The study identified that the indicators of life expectancy and GDP per capita were strongly correlated with the postal degree of a country. 

According to the UPU: “The use of big data for development is a burgeoning area of research that could help countries measure and monitor progress to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, big data can have limitations in coverage, particularly in countries where digital penetration and use of social media is low. This is where the contribution of UPU data from the global physical postal network can play a critical role.”

UPU Director General Bishar A. Hussein welcomed the results of the study: “The unparalleled reach of the global postal network’s unique data footprint in the e-commerce era paves one way in which UPU member countries can make a critical contribution to helping the world achieve the SDGs.”  

José Ansón, Postal Economist at the UPU, added: “In the digital era, greater granularity and frequency of analysis and monitoring of SDGs can, paradoxically, be achieved though global physical networks data,

“The postal network is the world’s largest physical network and its data a source of untapped potential, which, when tapped, can provide important insights into the state of nations.”

Comparing countries’ positions within each of the six global flow networks (postal, trade, migration, international flights, internet protocol and digital communications) revealed that, while there were differences among countries in size and average degree, there was a general tendency for nations to cluster together in global networks.

This enabled the authors to propose and evaluate a global connectivity degree to test network correlation with the 14 standard indicators of socio-economic status used in the study.

Looking ahead, the authors have identified the analysis of postal flows for socio-economic mapping on a sub-national level as a potential future area of study.

The full study on “The International Postal Network and Other Global Flows As Proxies for National Wellbeing” is published by PLOS ONE: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155976

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