Did you know that there is a 23% gap in literacy between adult men and women in South Asia – the highest gap in the world?

That 21% of the labor force in Sub-Saharan Africa is unemployed?

What about that only 39% of people in developing countries have a mobile phone?

These statistics are important. They help us understand the world around us. They help us know which markets and which groups to target for all sorts of programs and products. And, in particular, they have helped us at engageSPARK understand the needs of our customers so that we could effectively design our global SMS and Voice engagement platform.

Before writing one line of code, before designing a single wireframe, before deciding on what features our platform would have – we studied the market. We interviewed dozens of NGOs and businesses to understand the programs they were implementing using mobile phones and the limitations that were blocking them. We scoped out the various technologies available to understand their strengths and gaps. And we analyzed a number of relevant global statistics related to poverty and to mobile phones.

We compiled a detailed spreadsheet with a lot of this statistical data, including links to each source.  We’ve collected all sorts of data about different countries and regions across the world, including:

  • Mobile Penetration: How many mobile phones are there?
  • Mobile Unique Subscribers: How many individuals actually own a mobile phone?
  • SMS Usage: How many text messages are being sent each year and what kind of growth?
  • Mobile Marketing: How big is this industry and how is it growing?
  • Literacy: How many people are illiterate and what are the literacy differences between men and women?
  • Unemployment: How many people are out of work? How do the numbers compare across age groups?

Why do these statistics matter?

Here’s one example: Knowing that 46% of adult women in Sub-Saharan Africa are illiterate is key for developing a technology platform like ours. It tells us that sending SMS reminders to new mothers to get their newborns vaccinated isn’t enough in Sub-Saharan Africa – because almost half of the women won’t be able to read the SMS reminders. Voice calls are crucial for that population.

Here’s another: An organization that wants to engage with households in far-out rural areas in Malawi should consider using field workers rather than sending direct communications to the rural poor. Mobile penetration in Malawi is very low: only 29% of the population has a mobile phone, so engaging directly with the rural poor will be difficult.  On the other hand, mobile coverage in Malawi is very high: you can make and receive phone calls and SMS messages across 95% of the country, meaning an organization will be able to consistently and easily communicate with their field staff no matter where they are in the country.

These are the sorts of insights that can make or break technology products and social change programs; and these insights are in large part informed by the wide range of statistical data available for free on the web.

Have you done a lot of statistical research before launching a product or service or an ict4d program? What kind of statistics? What lessons did you learn from those statistics? Did they turn out to be as informative as you had expected?