UNICEF Virtual Workshop on Big Data & Analytics

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Last week, Global Pulse collaborated with UNICEF on a workshop about the utilization of big data to enhance programme planning and monitoring. More than 120 UNICEF staff from 12 country offices participated in the two-day virtual workshop, featuring some of the world's top researchers and practitioners in this field. After a half day of talks emphasizing the potential of big data and real-time analytics to the development field, UNICEF staff worked in collaborative teams to generate ideas and project proposals that apply the concepts and capabilities to their own work.

The experimental virtual workshop was part of UNICEF’s on-going commitment to apply technical innovations and build capacity within the organization. Over the course of the workshop, framed with discussions by the UNICEF Programme Division’s Chief of Staff, Cynthia McCaffrey and Deputy Director, Maniza Zaman and Global Pulse Director Robert Kirkpatrick, several major themes emerged:

  • UNICEF is keen to build partnerships with private sector and academic researchers who are already leveraging big data to explore practical application to development work. UNICEF specifically examined the relevance of digital data to refine programme evaluation and crisis impact monitoring but also to reduce costs and augment traditional research methods.
  • Children’s issues create a unique set of practical challenges when dealing with digital data. New approaches and possibilities provided by the era of big data are valuable resources for UNICEF programmatic staff – often in unforeseen ways. But human rights and privacy issues are more sensitive with this demographic, and must be approached with caution until appropriate policy frameworks are established.



Global Pulse hosted six leading experts to give short presentations to the participants:


Linus Bengtsson – a clinical epidemiologist – discussed his work with mobile phone networks to effectively track population movements following the Haiti earthquake. The data collected assisted the more efficient distribution of humanitarian relief to populations in need. His new organization, Flowminder, based in Stolkholm, Sweden, is establishing a global clearinghouse for aggregating, analyzing, and disseminating anonymized mobile phone location data to NGOs and relief agencies during disaster relief and reconstruction efforts.


Nathan Eagle – is the CEO of Jana (a global mobile research and marketing company), and teaches at MIT and Harvard. He discussed the role of mobile data as a proxy indicator of socio-economic wellbeing – from mobile phone movement patterns to predict the spread of Malaria in Kenya, to his research on social networks which identifies communication diversity as a key indicator of an economically healthy community. He introduced participants to Jana, and the capabilities of mobile phone surveys and global samples sizes using free airtime as a participation incentive in emerging economies.


Scott Gaul – is the Director of Analysis at MIX, the MicroFinance Information Exchange – a microfinance performance data and analysis organization. Scott introduced the audience to the hidden world of microfinance data, which provides valuable information about the economic decision making of the poor and marginalized. This large data set is normally difficult to obtain and digest – but Scott walked the participants through the process of accessing this data and the value that it may provide their programmatic work. Not only are microfinance details a barometer of a region’s economic health – but can also be an early warning indicator of social unrest, and a population’s changing priorities.


Adam Bly – is the CEO of Seed Media Group and founder of Visualizing.org. His work popularizing complex data visualization as a research tool has reshaped how the science and development sectors visually communicate. The workshop participants left with several key concepts including how visualizations help to communicate imperative messages to stakeholders by emphasizing relevant data. Additionally, he conveyed cases and techniques for using data visualization not just from a communications perspective but to help discern patterns and evaluate correlations.


Vanessa Frias-Martinez – a scientific researcher in the Data Mining and User Modeling Group at Telefonica Research in Madrid, Spain – focuses on technologies for emerging markets. She took participants through her work to determine specific human behaviors from cell phone data to evaluate the effectiveness of policy decisions. In order to measure the impact of the Mexican government’s H1N1 response in 2009, Vanessa analyzed call records to determine changes in people’s mobility patterns in Mexico City. The results indicated that the government’s policy to issue warnings to stay away from public spaces was in fact heeded by the citizens and thus effective in limiting exposure to the virus. Vanessa’s presentation also introduced cell phone data as cost-effective method to conduct demographic research in emerging economies.


Stephen Rappaport’s – most recent book, "Listen First!" outlines how companies use social media to listen to customers and change the public’s perceptions of brands and products. In his presentation to the UNICEF staff, he outlines how to harness social media to interpret online behavior as a gauge of the effectiveness of programmes and campaigns. Using examples as varied as mashed potatoes and razors – Stephen shared techniques to measure real-time feedback and discern valuable data to rapidly change course and adapt to the needs of communities.



As a follow-up exercise, each of the 12 participating country offices generated a potential project that fleshed out tangible applications for the concepts explored in the expert talks. Global Pulse provided feedback and advice on the submission, while gaining a better understanding of the practitioner’s needs and interests.

Some of the ideas included:

  • From Belize, using social media to understand youth sentiment about HIV in order to target communication for greater impact. From Indonesia, applying the same skills to monitor perception around childhood immunization in order to address challenges and evaluate programme tactics.
  • Also from Indonesia, apply data visualization techniques and cell phone call records to map the digital divide and measure progress toward improving access.
  • From Nigeria, using data, mobile surveys and behavioral information to create more accurate profiles of communities – and utilizing these tools to accelerate polio eradication and confirm vaccination coverage.
  • From Kosovo, exploring how digital data can improve immunization records, distribution of vaccines, and provide more accurate reporting on school attendance.

We hope to share videos and more follow up from the virtual workshop in the coming weeks – and look forward to collaborating further with our colleagues at UNICEF as they continue to explore the applicability of big data and real-time analytics to their programmatic work.

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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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