Global Pulse Launches Data Fellows Programme to Connect Doctoral Researchers with UN Entities

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Last week, UN Global Pulse brought together doctoral researchers and the UN entities they will be working with as part of the Data Fellows programme for a three-day marathon of introductions, presentations, and creative project planning at the UN Headquarters in New York City.

An important part of Global Pulse’s work is to foster an enabling ecosystem for data-driven innovation. Many of the agencies we work with have expressed an interest in finding ways to unlock unique data science skills that are lacking internally.  Academics, likewise, are keen to work with development and humanitarian practitioners to put their skills to use for the common good.

In response, UN Global Pulse came up with the concept of a Data Fellows programme, a match-making exercise where we identify PhD candidates with specific expertise in AI, data science, computational social science or data and design who are interested in working with the UN.

The fellows at UN HQ in front of “Sfera con sfera” – a bronze sculpture by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro

Next, the team reached out to UN organizations and the response we received was encouraging. In less than 72 hours, around 40 departments across the UN expressed their interest in working with a fellow. The first cohort of Data Fellows was selected in late 2018 and includes eight researchers who will dedicate the next year to working with the UN.

The fellows, UN Global Pulse, and the UN agencies they will be working with, met in New York at the UN Headquarters for a three-day workshop to facilitate in-person introductions and agree on the topic of their project. 

The week kicked off with the fellows introducing themselves and their prior work and academic achievements, and continued with short introductions from the UN agencies. Participants also met with Global Pulse’s data scientists and privacy and ethics experts to learn how to apply privacy principles, risks assessments, and data ethics into their work.

The second part of the workshop was reserved for the fellows, UN colleagues, and Global Pulse focal points to work together to sketch the problem definition, identify the data sources they will use, and conceptualize their project.

Over the next months, the fellows will work with UNHCR, UNDP, the Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office, UN-Habitat, UNOSAT, WHO, and UN Women, and with guidance from Global Pulse, to develop a wide range of data-driven projects that include: mining social media to uncover insights on increasing crime rates, developing algorithms to help recognize structures in satellite imagery such as tents and buildings in refugee camps, or analysing the #MeToo movement with big data analytics.  

The hope is that this exercise produces valuable methodologies and tools for future use, and that it contributes to fostering a stronger culture of innovation, experimentation and collaboration between the UN and Academia. If successful, Global Pulse plans to expand the programme.  

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