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

5 min read


There has been a great deal of discussion and exploration on the topic of how Big Data is applicable to global development happening in institutions across and outside of the UN system of late. In an effort to highlight the momentum, we are publishing a series of roundup blogposts. In Part I we highlighted a few recent papers – and their key concepts. Part II continues with a roundup of recent and upcoming events.


In addition to reports and thought-pieces grappling with the opportunities and challenges presented by the age of big data for global development conceptually, there have also been a number of opportunities for practitioners to meet and discuss the issues.  Several institutions have been organizing events for discussing key policy questions, and even test-driving some new techniques. Here are a few of note:

DataKind, Global Pulse, QCRI, UNDP, World Bank: “Big Data Exploration”

We are very excited to be partnering with DataKind, QCRI, UNDP and the World Bank on a “Big Data Exploration.” Our goal is to rethink data for better development results and jointly conduct a series of projects, challenges, and competitions to unearth key questions, explore data sources (both open and big data) and take a fresh look at old problems – for the benefit of those working on development projects. The events are designed to help bring awareness of the possibilities, and give global development practitioners the opportunity to actually “dive in” and explore the utility of data science and big data for their lines of work:

  • In January, DataKind hosted Global Pulse at a meet-up themed “Data Science at the United Nations” in New York which gave an opportunity for the data science community to learn about the challenges international development organizations bring. 
  • The Open Knowledge Foundation and UNDP hosted a DataDive in Vienna in February.  The goal was to have data science experts and development practitioners sit side by side and dig into the data to develop some hypotheses. Here is a summary of the questions under investigation at the event.
  • And on March 15-17, the World Bank is hosting a data dive with DataKind in Washington, DC. UNDP, QCRI and World Bank will all be contributing data and challenge questions – about measuring poverty, corruption, and operations – to the volunteers. There are still a few more spots if you’d like to sign up to attend!

Photo credit from February 22nd Vienna Data Dive: @UNDP_Europe_CIS

UN Statistical Commission Seminar

The UN Statistical Commission hosted a seminar specifically on “Big Data for Policy, Development and Official Statistics” on 22 February in New York. The seminar focused on the implications of Big Data for the national statistical communities around the world. The seminar was framed by a number of key questions, beginning with “why do we have to start using Big Data for official statistics?” and then delving deeper: 

  • Is Big Data the tipping point to move from maintaining a proprietary database to processing in the Cloud? If NSOs want to use Big Data do they have to use Cloud computing, Elastic Map Reduction, Hadoop, and Big Data Analytics from commercial providers? How secure is a Cloud environment for storing confidential data? Will Cloud computing be cost-effective for modernizing statistical products and processes?
  • What makes Big Data Analytics different from analysing a big database? Are the skill requirements different for Big Data Analytics than for processing and analysing traditional statistical data sources? Do we need to retrain the staff at the NSOs to start making use of Big Data?
  • How, where and when can we use Big Data for decision making on Policy and Development issues? What will be the consequences (positive and negative) of using Big Data for Policy and Development?
  • How can the official statistical community integrate Big Data with census data, survey data or other administrative data?
  • Are statistical offices in developing countries able to leapfrog the modernization of statistical products and processes in a contractual services environment while working with advanced statistical offices in meeting the new challenges in Big Data?

Organized by the UN Statistics Division, the panel included a mix of Big Data experts and evangelists (including Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian, Amazon Web Service’s Chief Data Scientist, Dr. James Goodnight who is CEO of SAS, as well as Global Pulse Director Robert Kirkpatrick, and Andrew Wyckoff who Directs the Science, Technology and Industry group at OECD) as well as experts from the traditional statistics community (including the Associate Director of the US Census Bureau, Chief Statisticians from the Netherlands, South Africa, India, and Australia among others).

'Tis the Season: Big Data for Development (PART II) 1

Mobile World Congress: Workshops and Seminars

Moving from the government perspective to the telecommunications industry perspective, last week the GSM Association hosted the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona between February 25-28th. With 75,000 registered attendees, this annual event is the largest conference and trade show for the mobile phone industry. Alongside announcements of flashy new handsets and apps, there were also a few seminars and panel sessions dedicated to discussing how to adapt the new opportunities presented by Big Data to development and humanitarian causes, including:

  • “Balancing privacy: Providing Social Good and Economic Opportunities – the Mobile Perspective” Workshop. Moderated by GSMA’s privacy director Pat Walsche, for an audience of telecommunications regulators and industry leaders, panelists included representatives from Orange Telecom’s R&D Lab (which is currently hosting the first-ever “data for development” challenge), Global Pulse and the World Economic Forum (which has been running a program specifically focused on re-imagining personal data). The workshop acknowledged that mobile derived Big Data (and in particular, location data) can be used to meet public policy objectives and create social good and economic opportunities  – but consumers’ privacy is still governed by a patchwork of national and local laws (where they exist). These inconsistent frameworks can create uncertainties, costs and barriers for both businesses, policymakers and regulators. The panel set out to discuss several critical questions, including:
  1. How can we use Big Data to achieve social and economic development goals whilst protecting the privacy of consumers and citizens?
  2. How can we develop regulatory frameworks that can support local economies and communities while helping users make informed decisions about the use of their personal information?
  • “Mobile: A Lifeline in Disasters” Seminar organized by GSM Development Group acknowledged that mobile communications are rapidly becoming a basic humanitarian need in the context of disasters and focused on the challenges, opportunities and priorities for improved collaboration, service delivery and partnership between the mobile industry and humanitarian sectors. Panelists included senior members of the mobile industry including Vodafone, Telefonica Group, TurkCell, Smart Communications and more. 

'Tis the Season: Big Data for Development (PART II) 2 

By Anoush Rima Tatevossian, Global Strategic Communications & Partnerships for Global Pulse. Up next: updates on recent Data Philanthropy efforts and ongoing examples of applied Big Data for Development research.  

Did you enjoy this blog post? Share it with your networks!

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

Scroll to Top