Innovation activities across the UN today are looking to modernize how we operate, how we function more effectively in the digital landscape, and how we adopt a more proactive approach to crisis prevention.
If you were in New York City last week, you likely experienced the buzz of the high-level week of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Discussions were dominated not only by the climate crisis but also by greater developments in the application of data and new technologies.
This year, the conversation shifted from how we can use new kinds of information for the SDGs, towards how we are using real-time information, predictive information, and new technologies to transform ourselves and to support governments and communities around the world. The underlying theme was on partnerships.
For the UN to be able to “think ahead, step back, analyse and then envision a future,’ we must be aware of the current reality. Timely and accurate data help us achieve this, according to newly-appointed Assistant-Secretary General (ASG) for Strategic Coordination, Volker Türk. The ASG kicked off a Monday reception we hosted together with Dataminr and Twitter that identified opportunities and setbacks for scaling social data projects and explored avenues to replicate fruitful data partnerships. The event saw commitments from partners including Dataminr and Twitter to continue working with the UN to leverage the power of social data.
Data is a sine qua non for monitoring and accelerating the progress of the SDGs. In a keynote that launched the Data for Now initiative, a new global effort to close the gaps on data for development, Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed stated that: “… we can blaze a trail of success, by working together to unlock data, protect people’s privacy and to fight for inclusion.”
Promising partnerships were formed throughout the week, with UN agencies, companies and governments recognizing the importance of data and artificial intelligence to construct a better society. During the Data for Now event, Google and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) announced an agreement focused on collaborating across platforms on earth observations for the SDGs.
The World Food Programme (WFP) and Alibaba on Thursday presented their new Hunger Map platform which combines different streams of information – such as weather, population size, conflict, hazards, food security, nutrition and market information – to monitor and predict the global food security situation in near real-time.
The creation of new innovation labs was announced. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is setting up a data lab in Rome, Italy to use big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence to get alternative agricultural measures. The UK Department for International Development (DfID) and the UK Office of National Statistics have set up a new data science hub in Scotland focused on international development.
As for us, we embarked on expanding our network of Pulse Labs to the Pacific region, where we’re laying the groundwork for a future Pulse Lab in Samoa focused on supporting small island states in building resilience to the impact of the climate crisis.
Clearly, any one of the Goals the UN works to advance is staggering in scope and requires the responsible sharing and use of new sources of data for the public good. Another important outcome last week was our co-hosting of a meeting of the Global Data Commons – for now, an informal partnership of some 70 governments, organizations and companies working to create a roadmap for allowing rapid innovation and safe use of artificial intelligence for the SDGs. The meeting concluded with a plan to develop a common reference architecture and governance frameworks and then implement a working model based on concrete use cases.
What a difference a year can make! The sheer volume of examples, of which the above are simply a taste, and the staggering number of partners engaged in delivering results is encouraging. The UN, with all its member states, is certainly facing a difficult challenge and we are not unique: we urgently need to get ahead of the curve and – more to the point – to make sure we stay there to be able to effectively serve the people we work for. This year’s UNGA showed that we are on the right track.
The team at UN Global Pulse was interviewed during UNGA on the work that we do in the data and artificial intelligence space. Find out more: bit.ly/2nVPyPN.