“Reading List”: Innovation, Intent and Capacity

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On a recent subway ride to work, I decided to catch up with some reading on my iPhone (instead of aimlessly fiddling with it), and came across three articles that linked very well with the things I, and all of us on the Global Pulse team, spend time thinking about. For me, the takeaways from the articles were that innovation offers great promise, but fulfilling that promise for the greater good takes both intent and capacity.


The Really Smart Phone – Wall Street Journal

The (close to) globally ubiquitous mobile phone holds powerful potential as a sensor and predictor of human behaviors. For example, a team of Boston-based physicists leading a project featured in this WSJ article found that they were able to predict an individual’s whereabouts with over 93% accuracy based on cellphone-generated information on past movements. Alex Pentland, the Director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, who led the 2-year research, is quoted saying: “Phones can know”—to the point, seemingly, where “we can quantify human movement on a scale that wasn’t possible before,” according to Nathan Eagle, a leading figure in the field also cited in the article.

Advances in statistics, psychology and the science of social networks and complex systems are giving researchers the tools to find patterns of human dynamics too subtle to detect by other means. Such a prospect might be scary; but the good news is that many positive applications of this knowledge are possible. Researchers are already exploring ways that the information gleaned from mobile phones can improve public health and urban planning, and we at Global Pulse are exploring ways that data trails could be analyzed for warning sights, or ‘digital smoke signals,’ as laid out in Global Pulse director Robert Kirkpatrick’s latest blogpost.

Ultimately, mobile phone technology might be “really smart”, but it takes the efforts of even smarter people to make sense of the data they generate and store.

When There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Information – New York Times

This recent article focused precisely on the utility of the massive amounts of data that are being generated today on a daily basis – the much discussed ‘data deluge.’ The private sector is said to be swimming in an ocean of real-time, business data. And yet, all boats are not lifted equally by the rising tide. Citing the findings of research led by MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, a recent New York Times article points to significant differences in the “data payoff” enjoyed by companies which have adopted “data-driven decision-making processes” and those that continue to rely primarily on “experience and intuition.” Of the 179 large companies studied, those that adopted data driven decision-making achieved a significant 5% increase in output and productivity.

Notably, the research focuses on the approach to decision making as being revolutionary – not simply the availability of new data: “Mr. Brynjolfsson emphasizes that the spread of such decision making is just getting started, even though the data surge began at least a decade ago. That pattern is familiar in history. The productivity payoff from a new technology comes only when people adopt new management skills and new ways of working.”

Indeed, the data-driven companies made purposeful investments to hone the type of skills—analytical, managerial—to yield positive results. Phrases and concepts such as “data analytics”, “data sifting”, and “business intelligence” convey a sense of intent and capacity.

As the article recalls – using the examples of the electric motor at the turn of the 20th century and of the personal computer in the last quarter of the 20th century – the speed and breadth of technology absorption can be slow, and is always uneven. What has and will continue to set companies apart are their intent and capacity to make the best use of innovation.

This is just as critical for those of us working in the field of global development and resillience.

Can Technology End Poverty?” – Boston Review

In this compelling article by Kentaro Toyama, a UC Berkeley professor who has worked in the field of ‘ICT4D’ (Information and Communication for Development) for over a decade, wrote: “Technology—no matter how well designed— is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity.” Intent sets the destination, capacity paves the way. If capacity is absent, then one must be “willing to invest heavily in developing human capability and institutions”. The message is simple but worth remembering, not least because of one of its corollaries: leveraging technology for the broader social good takes time, and resources.

This is the reality of our work at the Global Pulse New York Lab on a daily basis: trying to learn how to make sense of real-time data for “digital smoke signals”, finding out what they might reveal, and under which conditions. This involves developing tools, establishing labs and building partnerships with academic and corporate teams to run projects and test new approaches and analysis methods. Simultaneously, and just as importantly, Global Pulse is reaching out to colleagues both in and outside of the UN system to share our insights and approaches, and reminding our community that building this capacity does not happen overnight, or in a silo.

As highlighted in the New York Times article, Robert Solow once famously said, in 1987: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”. The computer age is now visible also in the productivity statistics. This is also true of the information age, especially for business. Now it has to be visible beyond that – to better understand and respond to fluctuations in human well-being and improve global development.


Emmanuel Letouzé is a senior development economist on the Global Pulse team. 

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