2018 ECOSOC Partnership Forum Discusses Role of Big Data for the SDGs, Focuses on Inclusivity and Resilience

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Every year at the Partnership Forum, ECOSOC, the UN Economic and Social Council, hosts leaders from government, the UN, and the private and public sector, to share the latest innovations on how partnerships can best advance international development.

This year the Forum, which took place at the UN Headquarters in New York, was organized under the theme: “Partnering for resilient and inclusive societies: contributions of the private sector.”  The one day event consisted of a morning session dedicated to inclusive business models for public good, and an afternoon session that explored the role of big data to achieve the SDGs.

UN Global Pulse was invited to moderate the afternoon session and share its experience of driving data philanthropy efforts to accelerate innovation for the public good. Below is a summary of the discussions and of the recommendations that emerged.

The “Big Data for Public Good “ session was kicked off by UN Global Pulse Director, Robert Kirkpatrick, who remarked that effective data partnerships must first and foremost enable the responsible sharing and use of emerging technologies. He emphasized the need for stakeholders to work together to ensure data-driven solutions address not only the risks of data misuse, but also those of non-use of technologies that could help save lives.

High-level Conversation

A high-level conversation with Rachel Samrén, Executive VP and Chief External Affairs Officer, Millicom and Andrew Zolli, Vice President, Global Impact Initiatives, Planet Inc. echoed the need to address the risks associated with big data use through stronger, multidisciplinary, inclusive and responsible partnerships.

Andrew Zolli highlighted the need to create more transparent and inclusive data architectures and emphasized the unique role partnerships play in ensuring big data helps communities achieve greater resilience.

Ms. Samrén underscored the importance of putting in place systems that protect individual privacy. She explained that “at Milicom, [we] have a supplier training programme through which our suppliers understand our policies of anti-corruption, gender-equality and our values with regard to privacy. We do this to employ the highest ethical standards for our consumers.” 

Panel Discussion

The high level discussion was followed by an interactive multistakeholder panel of experts who explored what opportunities now exist to build momentum for achieving the SDGs with the help of new technologies.

Anil Arora, Chief Statistician, Statistics Canada spoke about the crucial role the Government of Canada has played in advancing evidence and data for decision-making, beginning with “new legislation to strengthen the independence of Statistics Canada.” He outlined three elements that are guiding the use of big data for public good in Canada. These are: the commitment to translate data insights into consumable high quality information, the importance of combining new and traditional sources of information to include data poor communities, and the need to build capacities to ensure the responsible use of data across governments.

Eddy Mukooyo, Chairperson, Uganda AIDS Commission shared examples of data-driven innovations the Government of Uganda and Pulse Lab Kampala are working on to help predict diseases, respond to outbreaks, and gauge sentiment with big data and analytics. He explained how data-driven innovations should also make use of more traditional media — like radio broadcasts — to reach communities that remain offline. “Big data can collectively inform governments about perceptions  and people’s satisfaction about services. Big data can also help track epidemics in real-time and contain them,” he said.

JoAnn Stonier, Chief Data Officer, MasterCard focused on the opportunities and risks of using emerging technologies, highlighting the need for finding the right balance between the benefits and risks of using innovation. In her view “you need to let the innovation drive first, but then an evaluation of the risks has to be part of the programme, and of the conversation.” 

“You cannot fix what you cannot see,” said Sriganesh Lokanathan, Team Leader, Big Data for Development, LIRNEAsia. He argued that no one actor can achieve the promises of big data alone, and that the only way in which responsible and inclusive innovation can take place, is through collaborations and accountability by all stakeholders. He also underlined the importance of developing the capacity of citizens around the use of big data.

Ana María Blanco, Director, Public Policy and International Relations, GSMA talked about progress made by mobile operators as part of the Big Data for Social Good initiative, the first industry-wide commitment to leverage new technologies to help achieve Agenda 2030. Addressing the subject of what is needed to bring innovation to scale, Ms. Blanco referred both to getting access to data, but more importantly, to building the capacity and knowledge of institutions  to analyze and extract relevant information from it.

Interventions From Lead Discussants

The panel discussion was followed by statements from Lead discussants.

Mr. Stefan Schweinfest, Director, Statistics Division, UNDESA remarked on the benefits of complementing data from official statistics with new big data sources. He underscored the need to build better national information infrastructures, and shared his expectations of the upcoming UN World Data Forum which will take place on 22- 24 October 2018 in Dubai. 

Mr. Bjorn Gillsater, Special Representative to the UN, World Bank Group Office in New York shared examples of ways in which the World Bank is using new technologies to help achieve the SDGs. Among them, the Partnership for Financial Inclusion, a seven year partnership between IFC and the Mastercard Foundation to expand microfinance and advance digital financial services in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr. Amir A. Dossal, FCA, President and CEO of Global Partnerships Forum underscored the need for new safeguards to eliminate data breaches. Blockchain, he added, could play a role although it is not a panacea.

Remarks From The Floor 

Representatives of Member States, civil societies, and UN organizations then took the floor during the last section of the afternoon dedicated to interactive discussions.  

On behalf of Mexico, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia (MIKTA), Yujin Chun delivered a statement in which the group thanked UN Global Pulse for its leadership in the big data for good space, and underlined the importance of multistakeholder partnerships to ensure the responsible and inclusive use of these technologies. 

Regine Guevara, youth Representative talked about taking advantage of the resource that young people represent – they are motivated, enthusiastic, and are growing up in a technology prone world. On the other hand, she urged for greater engagement and investment in education to ensure young people everywhere can be part of the process of developing solutions that they are directly affected by.

Mariarosa Cutillo, Chief, Strategic Partnership Branch in UNFPA announced the launch of a new UNFPA, Flowminder and Columbia University project called GRID “Geo-Referenced Infrastructure and Demographic Data for Development.” The project, made possible through a grant awarded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development (DfID), aims to facilitate the collection, analysis, use, management and curation of high-resolution population and infrastructure data to support the SDGs.  

Mr. Sergey Shalom – Founder and President of GNation stressed the need for developing a robust digital identity platform using both big data and blockchain.

The representative of the Permanent Mission of Mexico announced the country will be investing 215 million dollars this year in big data platforms to streamline decision-making processes.


A number of recommendations emerged from the discussions of the “Big Data for Public Good” session calling for:

  • Greater engagement with citizens, to ensure they participate in the decision-making processes affecting how their data is being used.
  • Increased cross-sectoral collaborations, for example around the development of smart and agile regulations that allow innovation to flourish.
  • Creating an enabling environment — laws and regulations — to allow the government,  the private sector and other stakeholders to more effectively and efficiently work together.
  • Adopting a people-centric approach to innovation, where people are at the center of data innovation agenda.
  • Finding the right balance between the benefits and risks of data use through the implementation of data privacy and data protection frameworks, and of ethical considerations  to protect basic human rights.
  • Developing a common methodology for statisticians, scientists, lawyers and other stakeholders to facilitate the easy transfer of knowledge and technology.
  • A move from pilot studies to scaled operational data projects and programmes to maximize the benefits of data innovation and accelerate achievement of the SDGs.

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