Chief Data & Trust Officer, TELUS
Director of TELUS Insights & Smart Cities
With an estimated 31 million smartphone users in Canada, our mobile devices have become an essential part of our lives. But what if our phones collectively could improve health care, make our cities more efficient, and help manage pandemics? They can, thanks to TELUS Insights.
TELUS powers more than nine million devices on its network, which covers 98 percent of the populated areas of the country. With those millions of devices moving through our towns and cities, there’s a massive amount of data that can be used responsibly to provide significant benefits to society.
“Ensuring the privacy and trust of our customers is core to our business,” says Pamela Snively, Chief Data and Trust Officer at TELUS. “We knew that we had data that could contribute social benefits to improve the lives of Canadians while providing useful commercial applications, too.”
TELUS built a rigorous data governance process and trust model that considers the ethical implications of any data analytics project, and it’s the only telecommunications company in Canada to achieve Privacy by Design certification, for its Insights platform.
TELUS has long analyzed its network data for internal purposes to develop and improve products and services. Now, through its industry-leading TELUS Insights service, it can harness accurate, near real-time data drawn from its network as devices move around and connect to different cellular towers. This data is de-identified and aggregated — meaning that it contains no identifying or personal information and can’t be traced back to an individual — and can improve society by helping governments and their agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations make informed decisions.
“There’s tremendous promise in using data to find solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems,” says Snively. “For example, data analysis could have very positive results for our health care system. It could help us find effective treatments for diseases and also enables us to deliver health care more efficiently. Data-driven decisions will make businesses more efficient, and could enable municipalities to better manage civic infrastructure, including where to build roads and hospitals.”
TELUS Insights began as a consulting service to understand an organization’s challenges and problems. However, as the program scaled up and more organizations recognized its value, TELUS added an API — a user-friendly computing interface that users can interact with to view dashboards and generate reports.
The launch of Data for Good
Supporting communities across Canada is important to TELUS. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the company recognized it had an immediate — and meaningful — role to play. “We viewed our massive amount of de-identified and aggregated network mobility data as a planeload of N95 masks,” says Nadim Jamal, Director of TELUS Insights and Smart Cities. “We have a responsibility to leverage that data, while respecting privacy, to help public health officials and researchers battle the pandemic.”
In April, TELUS launched the Data for Good program, making it possible for health authorities and qualified academic researchers to use de-identified data from TELUS Insights at no charge to measure progress and assess additional opportunities to help stop the spread of COVID-19. TELUS also provides training and ongoing support, and the program has since won a global privacy innovation award.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health authorities are using data insights from TELUS to better understand traffic patterns — how people are moving through the city, how far they travel from their home neighbourhoods, and where they congregate. “This allows government and public health officials to measure the effectiveness of public health orders,” says Jamal. “COVID-19 has forced the government to adopt new, near real-time solutions in order to answer specific challenges related to the pandemic, such as comparing travel patterns to historic levels and where to deploy resources. It’s opened their eyes to the possibilities of how data can be used to help find solutions for other challenges.”
Leveraging the power of near real-time data to create safer communities
According to Jamal, many organizations are using survey data that in some cases is several years old to make decisions on how to spend tens of millions of dollars on infrastructure. TELUS Insights removes decision-making by assumption and replaces it with robust data that’s representative of current realities.
For example, the City of Revelstoke, BC was relying on census population data that was several years old and didn’t account for the large number of seasonal and temporary residents and visitors who draw upon city services and housing. Data provided by TELUS Insights showed that the city’s population in December 2018 peaked at 14,750 — almost double the number from the Canadian census. For the city to get this near real-time data any other way would have been both expensive and time-consuming.
“Access to the right actionable insights plays a critical role in helping address key issues in our communities, and ultimately can help create safer, more efficient cities,” says Jamal.
By way of example, The City of Edmonton, AB wanted to measure average traffic speed through residential neighbourhoods. Instead of spending millions of dollars to place sensors around the city and monitor them, it analyzed insights from TELUS’ mobility network to create a baseline on speeds in a particular neighbourhood and then compared speeds when limits were changed. This enabled decision-makers to be more precise in its understanding of where policy changes should be made, and whether or not they were having their desired effect.
“Our clients are amazed when they see what the power of our network capability can do. And the infrastructure is already there,” says Jamal. “With robust privacy considerations and safeguards in place, data can be used for good. We’re just beginning to see the tremendous benefits that smart cities can offer to make our lives better and safer, and one of the critical enablers of this will be analyzing data in a responsible way.”