When Lone Travelers Meet: A Story of the Private Sector and UN Global Pulse Partnership

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This guest blog post was written by I-sah Hsieh, Global Manager of International Development, SAS. Global Pulse worked with SAS on a project exploring unemployment through the lens of social media. This post is part of a series detailing the open innovation process undertaken by Global Pulse and our partners on a number of collaborative “proof of concept” research projects exploring the utility of various new, digital data sources to answer traditional development-related questions. Check out the first post from the series, interview with a Global Pulse data scientist for background.

Some may wonder why a private sector company would enter a pro-bono partnership with a non-profit organization like the United Nations. After all, one is focused on running a business by delivering goods/services and the other is focused on saving vulnerable populations. How can the two work together without compromising their respective missions?

Consider two travellers who meet on a dusty path and discover that they are both headed to the same far-away town. While they each have different tasks to perform once they get there, they find that their skills complement each other. For example, one is an excellent hunter and the other knows the area like the back of his hand. Each brings talent to the table, providing plenty of benefits for travelling together on this unfamiliar journey.

Similarly, the UN Global Pulse has the vision to explore what oceans of available digital data can tell them about vulnerable populations but does not have the enabling technologies. SAS develops advanced analytics software that organizations use to sift through vast quantities of data to tell its hidden story, look for emerging trends, etc.

The UN has fresh ideas and subject matter expertise; SAS brings a depth of technical experience and intellectual property. The resulting partnership delivers exciting results for the United Nations. But what are the benefits to SAS?

Innovation – SAS’ new technologies that make the most out of big data initially addressed some of the most complex challenges in the private sector. However, the work with the UN Global Pulse proved that these same technologies can also minimize the impact of crises (or in certain cases stop them before they occur) in vulnerable populations – through providing real-time feedback and predictive capabilities.

R&D – Not only did the collaboration help SAS handle new problems with existing technologies, it also gave SAS the opportunity to test our patented capabilities on a HUGE global data source across multiple languages.

Operational Savings – Helping the UN Global Pulse solve REAL problems is not only very exciting but also quite inspiring for our employees, boosting morale. This contributes to SAS’ low employee turnover rate (at 3 per cent in the US last I checked) which saves SAS tens of millions of dollars per year.

SAS CEO Jim Goodnight says “SAS’ most valuable assets drive out of our gates every night and it’s my job to ensure that they come back.” Partnering with the UN adds to the list of reasons to come back for sure.

Value – From a long-term perspective, the vulnerable populations we are helping constitute the emerging markets of the future. After all, the most successful and profitable companies are the ones that make strategic long-term investments.

Consider, for instance, how the Coca-Cola Foundation leads the charge in clean water initiatives in Africa because water is a key ingredient in their products and is central to the prosperity of communities where they do business.

Or how TNT, one of the world’s leaders in shipping/logistics, partners with the World Food Programme to provide critical logistical assistance, state-of-the-art commodity-tracking and improved supply chain methodologies.

The reason these partnerships are successful and sustainable is that each organization shares goals that have put them on the same path, where their core competencies – their hunting and navigational skills to bring it back to the traveller example above – can add both immediate and long-term value to each other.

The result? Both parties reach their destination faster and more effectively…and make a friend in the process.

Photo by Flickr user irishwildcat.

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