Global Pulse is an innovation initiative launched by the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General, in response to the need for more timely information to track and monitor the impacts of global and local socio-economic crises. The Global Pulse initiative is exploring how new, digital data sources and real-time analytics technologies can help policymakers understand human well-being and emerging vulnerabilities in real-time, in order to better protect populations from shocks.

The initiative was established based on a recognition that digital data offers the opportunity to gain a better understanding of changes in human well-being, and to get real-time feedback on how well policy responses are working. The overarching objective of Global Pulse is to mainstream the use of data mining and real-time data analytics into development organizations and communities of practice.

To this end, Global Pulse is working to promote awareness of the opportunities Big Data presents for relief and development, forge public-private data sharing partnerships, generate high-impact analytical tools and approaches through its network of Pulse Labs, and drive broad adoption of useful innovations across the UN System.

How We Work

Global Pulse functions as a network of innovation labs where research on Big Data for Development is conceived and coordinated. We partner with experts from UN agencies, governments, academia, and the private sector to research, develop, and mainstream approaches for applying real-time digital data to 21st century development challenges. Our strategy includes:

  1. Research & Development: Conducting research to discover new proxy indicators in digital data that can help us improve how development progress is tracked, and how we identify impediments to population wellbeing. This work will help us to develop a toolkit of the most effective methodologies and technology tools.
  2. Big Data Partnerships: Forging partnerships with companies and organizations that have the data, technology and analytical expertise needed for the success of “Big Data for Development” research and advocacy. We work with companies to determine how they can effectively contribute data tools and expertise to the public good.
  3. Pulse Lab Network: Working with UN Member States to establish an integrated, global network of Pulse Labs, where researchers work to prototype and pilot approaches at country level. Successful data analytics methodologies and technology tools that Pulse Labs develop would be widely shared for adoption by institutional partners.

Background: Why Big Data for Development?

The recent waves of global shocks – food, fuel, and financial – have revealed a wide gap between the onset of a global crisis and the availability of actionable information that can help protect the world’s most vulnerable populations against further regressions.

Traditional statistics, household surveys and census data have been effective in tracking medium to long-term development trends, but can be ineffective in generating the type of real-time picture that decision makers need in order to develop timely responses to ongoing issues. For example, much of the data used to track progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) dates back to 2008 or earlier and doesn’t take into account the more recent economic crisis.

While this may feed a perception that there is a scarcity of information about the wellbeing of populations, the opposite is in fact true. Thanks to the digital revolution, there is an ocean of data, being continuously generated in both developed and developing nations, that did not exist even a few years ago.

Since its inception in 2009, Global Pulse has been investigating the viability of using new and alternative data sources to support development goals. This includes data from:

  1. Online Sources - Public news stories, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, obituaries, birth announcements, job postings, e- commerce, etc.
  2. Private Sector Partnerships - Anonymized data from telecommunications companies, mobile banking, online searches, hotline usage, transit companies etc.
  3. Physical Sensors - Satellite imagery, video, traffic sensors, etc.
  4. Crowdsourced Reports - Information actively produced or submitted by citizens through mobile phone-based surveys, user generated maps, etc.

It has become clear that protecting social development gains requires the ability to quickly, and as accurately as possible, profile and respond to crises that have the potential to undo decades of development work. Today’s shocks—fast, global, and fluid—demand more agile response systems.

The private sector is already finding ways to efficiently analyze this new data to better understand its customers. Innovative companies are utilizing real-time analytics to better understand the changing needs of their customers and to respond with more agile platforms.

The impetus for establishing Global Pulse was the realization that the same data, tools and analytics that power business can help speed up the public sector’s ability to understand where people are losing the fight against hunger, poverty and disease, and to plan or evaluate a response.

Our research to date has shown that new sources of digital data contains information that can be relevant to the planning and evaluation of social development programmes, especially in the developing world where mobile technologies are becoming ubiquitous.

Global Pulse is working to design an approach for harnessing big data and real-time analytics for monitoring development progress, emerging vulnerabilities and overall population well being of the populations the United Nations serves.