Exploring Big Data for Development: An Electricity Sector Case Study from India

Ritam Sengupta, Richard Heeks, Sumandro Chattapadhyay & Christopher Foster


This paper presents exploratory research into “data-intensive development” that seeks to inductively identify issues and conceptual frameworks of relevance to big data in developing countries.  It presents a case study of big data innovations in “Stelcorp”; a state electricity corporation in India.  In an attempt to address losses in electricity distribution, Stelcorp has introduced new digital meters throughout the distribution network to capture big data, and organisation-wide information systems that store and process and disseminate big data.

Emergent issues are identified across three domains: implementation, value and outcome.  Implementation of big data has worked relatively well but technical and human challenges remain.  The advent of big data has enabled some – albeit constrained – value addition in all areas of organisational operation: customer billing, fault and loss detection, performance measurement, and planning.  Yet US$ tens of millions of investment in big data has brought no aggregate improvement in distribution losses or revenue collection.  This can be explained by the wider outcome, with big data faltering in the face of external politics; in this case the electoral politics of electrification.  Alongside this reproduction of power, the paper also reflects on the way in which big data has enabled shifts in the locus of power: from public to private sector; from labour to management; and from lower to higher levels of management.

A number of conceptual frameworks emerge as having analytical power in studying big data and global development.  The information value chain model helps track both implementation and value-creation of big data projects.  The design-reality gap model can be used to analyse the nature and extent of barriers facing big data projects in developing countries.  And models of power – resource dependency, epistemic models, and wider frameworks – are all shown as helping understand the politics of big data.


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Educators’ Guide

Synopsis Questions

  1. What are the main domains and knowledge foundations within the literature on big data and development?  [Section B]
  2. What are the key parameters of Stelcorp and its context?  [Sections C & D1]
  3. What big data-related innovations has Stelcorp implemented?  [Section D2]
  4. What value has big data delivered for Stelcorp?  [Section D3]
  5. How have power and politics shaped the impact of big data in the Stelcorp case?  [Section D4]
  6. What issues and conceptual frameworks does this case study suggest should be priorities when researching big data and development?  [Section E]

Development Questions

  1. In what sense is this a big data case?
  2. Are there particular features of the electricity sector which shape the findings from this case study?
  3. How legitimate is it to draw conclusions on the basis of a case study with only eight interviews?
  4. What conclusions would you draw from this case for the implementation of “smart grid” applications?
  5. What advice would you offer to a big data practitioner on the basis of this case study?
  6. Which is most important in shaping the outcomes in this case: data, technology, or people?
  7. Identify a big data for development pilot research activity that uses one of the conceptual frameworks.