‘Tis the Season: Big Data for Development (PART I)

Anoush Rima Tatevossian
Mar 8, 2013


“Big Data for Development” is in the air and we couldn’t be more pleased to see the topic gaining traction. As described in a our previous post, Global Pulse’s vision involves raising awareness of the opportunities, building communities (of data science expertise, data providers and development sector practitioners), and helping to catalyze innovations (through collaborative R&D) and adoption of the use of new digital data sources and real-time analytics into institutional practice.

We are therefore eager to note that there has been a great deal of discussion and exploration on the topic happening in institutions across and outside of the UN system of late.

In an effort to highlight the momentum, we will be publishing a series of roundup and summary blogposts over the coming weeks.

To start us off, below is a recap of some recent (and upcoming) reports related to Big Data for Development (and see Part II for a roundup of events)


Following several months of research and literature review on the “Big Data” phenomenon in general, Global Pulse published white paper (“Big Data for Development: Opportunities & Challenges”) outlining some preliminary ideas on how this new phenomenon is applicable to the humanitarian and development sectors.

A growing number of reports have since emerged from academia and international institutions, unearthing important new perspectives and shedding light on possible directions, obstacles and solutions. For those interested in following this burgeoning area of policy thought and debate, here are a few worth reading:

European Evaluation Society: Connections

The European Evaluation Society, published, in its February 2013 issue of “CONNECTIONS” an article contributed by Global Pulse director Robert Kirkpatrick, on the idea of using Big Data in the toolkit for 21st century evaluation:

"Participatory evaluation will also be enriched by the social media technologies. They are not merely data sources but also platforms for engaging directly with beneficiaries, and as such, they represent tools of pro-active social inquiry, evaluative investigation, as well as testing and verification of programme hypotheses. Embracing the new technologies would enable a more agile, iterative, and adaptive approach to development interventions in which real-time feedback enables nimble course correction, greater resilience to disruption by exogenous shocks and accelerated achievement of results.“

WEF: Unlocking the Value of Personal Data

Last week, the World Economic Forum’s ‘Rethinking Personal Data’ Project published a new paper entitled: “Unlocking the Value of Personal Data: From Collection to Usage.” The report emphasizes that policy frameworks that constrain how data can be linked, shared and used (such as collection limitations, purpose specifications, and use limitations) are increasingly less effective and anachronistic in today’s hyper-connected world. But while recognizing the privacy challenges, the report suggests that what is needed is a careful balance between privacy and use of data for the public good. Among the case studies, the paper notes the value of Big Data in the fields of public health, fraud protection, and indeed: global development. The paper lays out the need for a new approach to personal data that is flexible and adaptive to encourage innovation, but also protects the rights of individuals:

"This new approach also needs to carefully distinguish between using data for discovery to generate insight and the subsequent application of those insights to impact an individual. Often in the process of discovery, when combining data and looking for patterns and insights, possible applications are not always clear. Allowing data to be used for discovery more freely, but ensuring appropriate controls over the applications of that discovery to protect the individual, is one way of striking the balance between social and economic value creation and protection...Because future, yet-to-be-discovered uses of data cannot be fully anticipated, a default policy of deleting data in all contexts can be harmful. A better approach is to manage use in ways that can evolve over time, protecting both the rights and the future options of the individual, and the groups and institutions with which the individual exchanges data. Principles can provide both the foundations for such a shift and the flexibility for innovation. But managing such a flexible, dynamic system will not be easy. It will require action by all stakeholders coming together to agree on refreshed guiding principles and ways to implement them including codes of conduct and technological solutions."

OECD: New Data for Understanding the Human Condition

In a similar vein, OECD’s Global Science Form has produced a forthcoming paper entitled "New Data for Understanding the Human Condition." One of the 9 challenges the paper addresses is that “new forms of personal data, such as social networking data, can provide insights into the human condition… However, there is a need for greater transparency in the research use of new forms of data, maximising the gains in knowledge derived from such data while minimising the risks to individuals’ privacy, seeking to retain public confidence in scientific research which makes use of new forms of data.” The group recommends:

“research funding agencies and data protection authorities should collaborate to develop an internationally recognised framework code of conduct covering the use for research of new forms of personal data, particularly those generated via network communication.”

USC/UN ECLAC: Big Data for Development - From Information to Knowledge Societies

Finally, Professor Martin Hilbert of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and affiliated with United Nations ECLAC published a paper entitled “Big Data for Development: From Information- to Knowledge Societies.” He highlights the need for policymakers to focus on the capacities that will be needed to truly exploit the power of Big Data without leaving countries with less technological infrastructure and capacity behind:

“On the one hand, the advent of Big Data delivers the cost-effective prospect to improve decision-making in critical development areas such as health care, employment, economic productivity, crime and security, and natural disaster and resource management. This provides a wealth of opportunities for developing countries. On the other hand, all the well-known caveats of the Big Data debate, such as privacy concerns, interoperability challenges, and the almighty power of imperfect algorithms, are aggravated in developing countries by long-standing development challenges like lacking technological infrastructure and economic and human resource scarcity. This has the potential to result in a new kind of digital divide: a divide in data-based knowledge to inform intelligent decision-making. This shows that the exploration of data-based knowledge to improve development is not automatic and requires tailor-made policy choices that help to foster this emerging paradigm.”



(This series will continue with a roundup of recent and upcoming Big Data for Development related events in Part II.)


IMAGE CREDIT: Graphic summary of Davos workshop on personal data. Source: World Economic Forum Unlocking Value from Personal Data report

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