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Not If, But How, Big Data can Help Drive Development

Robert Kirkpatrick
Oct 25, 2012

Last week, Global Pulse was honored to once again present at the O’Reilly Strata Conference - which has come to be known as the largest industry conference on the topic of Big Data and data science. Our participation this year was strikingly different from last year’s in this respect: No one was surprised to see us.

Big Data doesn’t just hold the answers to what products and services people prefer to consume, but also holds information about how people are coping with global stresses like unemployment and natural disasters.

Since its establishment, our work at Global Pulse had been trying to convey to international audiences why the United Nations is as invested in harnessing new sources of real-time digital data, and data science, as the private sector is. We have been explaining that we strongly believe that Big Data doesn’t just hold the answers to what products and services people prefer to consume, but also holds information about how people are coping with global stresses like unemployment and natural disasters; and can tell us whether development programs were having the desired effect. Big Data, the UN Secretary-General has told audiences, is an asset to development work, a new public good.

Those presentations are now significantly bolstered by the success of the proof of concept research we have done in partnership with several of the world’s most respected data analysis teams and companies, which you can find here on our website and detailed in the white paper Big Data for Development: Opportunities and Challenges we published in the Spring. We have also benefited from building on the work of others, like using social network analysis to understand health behavior, and research using mobile phone records as proxy mobility and socio-economic indicators, that have contributed to the growing awareness and expectations of Big Data’s impact on social issues.

So this year we are able to move our conversations beyond questions of WHETHER or IF data science will be applicable to the work of the United Nations to HOW it can help us improve efforts to combat hunger, poverty and disease.

So this year we are able to move our conversations beyond questions of whether or if data science will be applicable to the work of the United Nations to how it can help us improve efforts to combat hunger, poverty and disease. We are able to talk about Pulse Lab Jakarta - which officially launched at the beginning of October and is already supporting research on some of data-rich Indonesia’s most pressing problems, particularly around the price of food and fuel - and about the ongoing work of our Pulse Lab headquarters in New York.

What hasn’t changed about our work is that we continue to work to form, and to help facilitate, partnerships in both the public and private sector to explore how emerging technologies and new sources of data can help the United Nations’ effort to improve the wellbeing of the world’s most vulnerable populations. For example, we are currently co-sponsoring the first ever open mobile phone data challenge with Orange Telecom, who is making 2.5 billion anonymized mobile call records from the Ivory Coast available for research teams to mine and discover trends and indicators relevant to human development. These types of innovative collaborations and rapid learning opportunities are of increasing importance in today’s hyper-connected world, where socioeconomic crises seem to move with the speed of natural disasters.

We are asking companies to consider a new kind of CSR - call it "data philanthropy."

We are asking companies to consider a new kind of CSR - call it "data philanthropy." Join us in our efforts by making anonymized data sets available for analysis, by underwriting technology and research projects, or by funding our ongoing efforts in Pulse Labs. The same technologies, tools and analysis that power companies' efforts to refine the products they sell, could also help make sure their customers are continuing to improve their social and economic wellbeing. We are asking governments to support our efforts because data analytics can help the United Nations become more agile in understanding the needs of and supporting the most vulnerable populations around the globe, which in terms boosts the global economy, benefiting people everywhere.

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