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, as new research from the Universal Postal Union, UN Global Pulse and University of Cambridge shows.
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.
The study had unparalleled access to the tracking data held by the UPU on postal flows, a rich source of records of human activity with extraordinary penetration in the physical world. The records themselves are generated each time a postal dispatch occurs between countries.
Four years of daily postal data from 187 countries (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.
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.
For his part, UPU Director General Bishar A. Hussein welcomed the results. “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,” Hussein said.
“In the digital era, greater granularity and frequency of analysis and monitoring of SDGs can, paradoxically, be achieved though global physical networks data,” said José Ansón, Postal Economist at the UPU. “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,” he added.
“Physical networks, like the global postal, flight and migration networks, are critical variables to build robust socio-economic proxies in combination with new digital networks, such as internet traffic and social media use,” said Miguel Luengo-Oroz, Chief Data Scientist at UN Global Pulse.
“In this work, we show how the network properties of global flow networks can approximate critical socio-economic indicators and how network communities formed across physical and digital flow networks can reveal socio-economic similarities possibly indicating dependencies within clusters of countries,” explained Desi Hristova, a researcher from the University of Cambridge.
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.