How partnering with the world’s largest e-commerce company has informed research about mobile credit and social mobility

The United Nations has turned to researchers at University of Oxford to understand how online retail companies are developing mobile credit profiles that could benefit society.

Professor Xiaolan Fu, based at the Oxford Department of International Development, was approached by the United Nations Development Programme to develop a series of case studies about innovation in big data and mobile credit.

One of those case studies funded by the UNDP involves Sesame Credit, part of China’s Alibaba group, which has developed algorithms to develop digital credit scores for customers.

Professor Xiaolan Fu

Professor Xiaolan Fu

These scores have enabled customers from China’s poorest backgrounds, plus graduates or workers starting their careers with limited access to cash deposits, to access a wide range of goods and services through a digital trust-based deposit-exemption scheme, from homes to rent to cycle hire and even clothes and electrical goods.

The innovation can also be applied to public services, such as healthcare and government – for example, accessing emergency medical treatment. It’s thought that by increasing access to credit, people from a more diverse range of backgrounds can move both in locality and socially, improving their quality of life.

Working with Sesame Credit enabled Professor Fu and her team to access real data, whilst maintaining objectivity and quality of research.

The project involved gathering 5,904 survey responses from a wider sample of 300,000 customers, plus 30 stakeholder interviews.

Professor Fu said: “The purpose of our research was to assess the impact of this innovation and how it can bridge gaps to build a more inclusive society.

“It was also to understand the concerns and challenges around this practice, especially in terms of regulations and ethics in building digital profiles for customers.

“I’m grateful that the company have been so brave and supportive in trusting us with genuinely objective research. They are willing to share their practices with the world so other countries may benefit in future.”

Dr Qing Xu, Portfolio Manager for the United Nations Development Programme, said: “We really appreciated the high quality of Professor Fu’s research work, liaison between expert departments at Oxford, and flexibility and open-mindedness when encountering private sector and industry experts.”

“By combining in-depth stakeholder interviews and statistical analysis of datasets to investigate the role of a big data-based mobile credit innovation in transforming social trust, life satisfaction, and inclusive development, Professor Fu’s team delivered a concrete research project.

“For the mobile credit system to contribute to Sustainable Development Goals, we need rigorous studies such as this to assess its application and impact.

"We look forward to working with the team again in the near future.”

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