Finding the balance: Right to privacy and the drive to innovate in the UN

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This article was originally published in the website of the United Nations Development Group (UNDG). Access it here. 

It is now more and more accepted that big data (distinguished by higher volume, variety and velocity, and often collected/created in real time by private sector entities) has an important role to play to support the achievement of the SDGs. Many examples exist demonstrating the value of big data to target interventions based on real time information and as a source for new insights into human behaviour.

To name only a few… Cell-phone location data has been used to understand how human travel affects the spread of malaria in Kenya. The relative size of air time top-ups can give a real time indication of household vulnerability. Tweets can be used to ‘now-cast’ food pricesBanking transactions give an indication of recovery after a natural disaster.  Throughout the UN, teams such as those in UNICEF, UNDP, UNHCR and WFP among others work with UN Global Pulse and others to use big data to inform programme design to advance the sustainable development goals.

Addressing challenges in access to big data while ensuring privacy

During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, some attempts were made to access anonymized call detail records from mobile phones to understand people’s movement patterns in order to design prevention and response plans for a rapidly moving deadly disease. One of the challenges experienced during this effort was the lack of a regulatory framework that would assure governments and private sector companies that data would be used responsibly. This meant that using data when it was needed was harder than it needed to be.

While there are many benefits to the use of big data for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, the absence of a common set of principles on data protection, privacy and ethics makes it harder to use big data for development and humanitarian goals. These gaps also complicate efforts to develop standardized, scalable approaches to risk management and data access from partners outside the UN.

Putting heads together: lawyers, computer scientists and development experts

To ensure that big data is used responsibly, we must use it in a way that respects the right to privacy. Given the emergent nature of technology, and the fact that more and more data is produced by ever-changing technologies, our operating principles need to continuously adapt.

Within the UN, UNDG leads a task team devoted to data and transparency. Together with UN Global Pulse, they are working on developing frameworks for safe and responsible use of big data for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.

The project started with a  large and ambitious goal: to facilitate data innovation within the UNDG and across the 165 countries where UN teams work together with governments and partners. But it started small. Together with legal, policy, data specialists and practitioners from the UN and the UN Global Pulse's Data Privacy Advisory Group, the UNDG now has a Guidance Note on Big Data for SDGs: Data Privacy, Ethics and Data Protection. This is the first guidance that has been officially approved and adopted by UNDG with regard to big data and privacy and ethics.

The guidance sets the ground for further work and implementation of more substantial mechanisms for responsible data access and use for the achievement of SDGs. The main objectives are to:

  • Establish common principles across UNDG to support the operational use of big data for achievement of the SDGs;
  • Manage risk, taking into account fundamental human rights;
  • Set principles for obtaining, retention, use and quality control for data from the private sector.


This new scope of work was only possible due to collaborative work between various experts – from data privacy, data security, legal, policy, data and humanitarian and development practitioners. This work acknowledges the importance of trust between the public and private sectors and the need to understand any potential risks and harms involved in data use for social and public good taking into account a particular context (things like geography, gender, political and social norms etc.).

It goes beyond privacy of individuals as it takes into account the needs and interests of vulnerable groups. It recognizes the need to establish proper risk management frameworks and understanding of the risks that are involved in the use of data as well as its non-use.

It is a small step, but one in the right direction. Growing sources of data can and should be used to the public benefit –  safely, and taking into account human rights, while embracing a quickly evolving technological environment. That’s the UN of the future.

Photo credit: © Dominic Chavez/World Bank


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