Positive deviance, big data, and development: A systematic literature review

Basma Albanna, Richard Heeks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Positive deviance is a growing approach in international development that identifies those within a population who are outperforming their peers in some way, eg, children in low-income families who are well nourished when those around them are not. Analysing and then disseminating the behaviours and other factors underpinning positive deviance are demonstrably effective in delivering development results. However, positive deviance faces a number of challenges that are restricting its diffusion. In this paper, using a systematic literature review, we analyse the current state of positive deviance and the potential for big data to address the challenges facing positive deviance. From this, we evaluate the promise of “big data-based positive deviance”: This would analyse typical sources of big data in developing countries—mobile phone records, social media, remote sensing data, etc—to identify both positive deviants and the factors underpinning their superior performance. While big data cannot solve all the challenges facing positive deviance as a development tool, they could reduce time, cost, and effort; identify positive deviants in new or better ways; and enable positive deviance to break out of its current preoccupation with public health into domains such as agriculture, education, and urban planning. In turn, positive deviance could provide a new and systematic basis for extracting real-world development impacts from big data.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12063
JournalElectronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 31 Oct 2018


  • big data
  • developing countries
  • machine learning
  • mobile data
  • positive deviance
  • systematic literature review

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global Development Institute


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