Notes from Pulse Camp 1.0: Day One

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The first day of Pulse Camp was rainy and dark, but the mix of technology experts, UN agency experts, and academics from around the world showed up with energy, ready to lend their expertise to the Global Pulse to start brainstorming on how the Pulse platform can be built in a collaborative and open manner.

Soon-Hong Choi, the Chief Information and Technology Officer of the UN, opened the day reminding participants that, while the United Nations is often associated with the General Assembly or particular agencies, the UN is really made up of citizens, and thus the impetus of this workshop—to open up the development of the Global Pulse to the international community at large—is quite appropriate.  He also noted that the UN is really the only organization whose specific purpose is to preserve the public good.  That unique position enables it to leverage exactly the types of partnerships required for this type of project to succeed.  He closed by emphasizing , “The UN: It’s your world!”

Robert Kirkpatrick followed up with introduction to Global Pulse and the purpose of this workshop.  Other blog posts have dealt with this is much more detail (see here and here), but it is worth revisiting. Global Pulse was born to monitor in real-time the impacts of slow-onset shocks. This system needs to be built from the bottom up and the top down, to connect data being generated from the international community and from the grassroots.  Connecting it in the middle is the platform.  The purpose of this particular workshop is to plant the seeds for the development of this platform.

Some concerns, questions

Several excellent questions and concerns were brought up in the beginning of the day


It was pointed out that some parties might have an incentive to use the system for ill: first, to censor or manipulate the data, or second, to use the data to monitor their populations.   

The current thinking of the Global Pulse team to handle the first problem is to allow users to rate the data according to how trustworthy users feel it is.  In addition, where red flags or alerts are raised which might ultimately require action by NGOs, governments or international actors, a data verification processes will be initiated. 

The second problem brings in the very important issue of data privacy, which will be subject to future Global Pulse conferences, and the Global Pulse will be open and transparent throughout.   Related to this is the issue of data sovereignty.  The Global Pulse approach is based around national data sovereignty as a core requirement.  Governments can create a secure workspace where they keep their information and outside parties have absolutely no access to it.  Sensitive data coming from NGOs could be similarly secured.  In this way, users are collecting data from sources that they believe are important and sharing what they want.  The idea of the system is to take away obstacles to sharing information, not to mandate it.

Mainstreaming and Mandate

There is a tension between the Global Pulse mandate, to monitor crisis impact, and the effectiveness of the tools used to do that monitoring, which will require mainstreaming the use of data collection and aggregation tools.  This means that although the mandate is centered around events which by definition are unique, the tools used to monitor them need to be in place at all times, not system which lie idle until they are rolled out in emergencies.  It is therefore imperative that, in addition to relying on existing technology, new tools and data streams will have to be imbedded in local needs, taking into account incentives in every day life, from the grassroots to the national and international levels from the beginning.  Much of these requirements are reflected in the user-centered design approach, described below.

As ever, very interesting questions arose in side conversations as well.  A broad question that came up over coffee was the relationship between the data gathered by Global Pulse and the development community more generally.  While Global Pulse needs to stay focused on its mandate—strongly rooted in crisis—it’s hard not to imagine how this type of information could improve analysis within those focused on more traditionally conceived development.  For example, getting real time information about prices of staple foods in rural areas is squarely within the mandate of Global Pulse, as food prices are sensitive to global shocks, and have direct effects on people’s wellbeing.  However, this information could also feed into poverty measurements used by the development community more generally, determining the price of the food basket and purchasing power parity, and thus the strengthen the accuracy of poverty estimates. 

User-Centered Design

The rest of the day was spent on three of the four steps in user centered design: user personas, scenarios and use cases, and paper prototypes.  The first involves understanding and empathizing with the users, understanding their needs, goals, behavoriors, and frustrations.   The second involves imaging that users’ interaction with the system, as an end-to-end journey.  The third envisions what the product will look like to meet the users’ needs.  Tomorrow, participants will engage with the final step of this process, product in a box, in which users imagine the product on a shelf and articulate its key features. 

The following list of users were identified: Government decision maker, UN official, Analyst, Local community leaders, the average citizen (including those who may not be technological plugged in), data providers, developers and administrators of the system, the media (national and international, vernacular and English), private industry, academia, donor, advocates, diasporas, and service delivery agents.  Participants spent the rest of the day choosing a user and “walking a mile in their shoes.”  A sampling of this includes:

The United Nations Official
Zina is a resident coordinator in Egypt.  She is single, 48 years old and speaks French, Arabic and English.  Her primary work concerns deal with media relations and having effective country team meetings.  Her goals are to enable the UN systems to deliver as one and to be focused on supporting development goals of the country.  Her frustrations are many, especially in affecting action in government, and forming consensus among donors and other partners.  She would like to use this data to help organize conversations with partners, which otherwise might not take place.  She would also like tools to enable her to work with partners to prioritize between goals, to frame agenda discussions.

Community Leader
Sonia is a 35 year old Tanzanian community health worker.  She has four children and lives in a rural home with no electricity or running water.  She has very busy days, managing her time between caring for her family, subsistence farming, and making her rounds to community members.  Her goals are to provide health care to individuals, transmit public health information.  She also engages in informal counseling.  Her frustrations are that she has too many reports with no feedback, not enough resources to meet the needs she sees in the community, transportation problems and clashes with clients who are unable or unwilling to take her health advice.  She would like to engage with Global Pulse to ease some of these burdens, to smooth her reporting mechanisms, receive information on available resources or relevant public health messages, and to better serve her clients.

Su Yin is a PhD student in Sustainable Development.  She is interested in completing her PhD thesis, looking at the effects of remittances on migration patterns among sex workers in Northern Uganda.  Right now, she is primarily interested in finishing her PhD and getting published, but she would also like to do some good in the world.  She is extremely frustrated by the lack of available data.  Her incentive to engage with Global Pulse would be to get data from disparate sources that would enable her to answer her research question.  She would need the ability to clean and validate the data, and to play with the data in the same operating software.  She would also like to communicate with other scholars interested in similar questions, so that they can critique her hypothesis and model.

These and the other user personae now need to be transformed into “products.”  Stay tuned for Day Two!

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News, thoughts and ideas about big data and AI, data privacy and ethics from across the Pulse Lab Network. Read more on the blog.

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