New decade, renewed priorities for UN Global Pulse

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It’s been a decade since UN Global Pulse was set up inside the office of the UN Secretary-General to unearth the power of big data and analytics to protect vulnerable populations. Much has changed since then, and the data innovation ecosystem continues to grow and mature in ways that have significant implications for our work. For this reason, we needed to hit pause, reassess and come up with a plan for scaling our impact.  

In the early days, we were trying to make sense of how new sources of data could help public sector institutions inform — and transform — development and humanitarian practices. This was uncharted territory. Research on big data was still an emerging topic — even within large corporations — and there was limited knowledge of how it may be used to understand changes in population behaviour in ways relevant to the work of the UN. We needed new skills, new frameworks, and new partnership models. 

We hired the first data scientist in the UN and built an interdisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, designers and legal experts working alongside UN experts to investigate how data analytics could be used to “take the pulse” of what’s happening on the ground. In 2012, we wrote a seminal report that conceptualized how big data can be used to inform development practice. To ensure that our research was grounded in the realities of the communities we were trying to assist, we built a network of Pulse Labs servicing Asia-Pacific and Africa with an HQ in New York to coordinate our efforts. 

One of the main challenges that arose, as our teams began experimenting with big data, was to convince private sector players to share access to their data. In 2013, we started working with mobile operators, through what we call “data philanthropy,” to open anonymized mobile datasets to researchers to develop applications for sustainable development. At the same time, we worked to create guidelines for the responsible use of data, meaning we needed to make sure that data-driven projects would not endanger people’s privacy and basic human rights.

Read A Decade of Leveraging Big Data for Sustainable Development for a recount of our history and milestones. 

Fast forward to 2019, we now have a portfolio of over 70 data-driven projects implemented, a toolkit of data analytics applications, user adoption accelerating, and an ever growing number of partners and collaborators working with our lab network. As a result of increased demand for our big data and AI expertise and skills, we are now adapting our approach to support the transition to a new global development paradigm supported by real-time, predictive and prescriptive analytics. 

Narrowing down our strategy for better impact 

Over this past decade, the proliferation of innovation units, hubs, services, and initiatives in the international development sector, including the UN, has created a labyrinth of both opportunities and challenges. As the number of institutions and networks continues to grow, the resources allocated to data science hubs, though more plentiful, are also becoming increasingly scattered. To those outside and within the UN, it can be challenging to determine what each innovation unit seeks to do, on whose behalf, how they work, and how to engage them. 

Recognizing these challenges and the need to adapt our approach, last year we embarked on an internal exercise, where we worked with a consulting firm to understand how to deliver more value for the organizations and communities we serve. 

Our vision has always been about a future in which big data and disruptive technologies are used responsibly for the public good. Realizing this vision means increasing the volume of innovations with potential for global impact, creating the right policy frameworks, and strengthening ties with the relevant communities of practice.  

Following an approach that has proven highly effective in tech startups, we identified three activity streams to structure our work, with our Pulse Labs undergoing a similar exercise. 

  1. Discovery, will test new applications of big data and artificial intelligence to address emerging challenges;
  2. Scaling, will accelerate uptake of software platforms, methods, approaches, and algorithms we have been developing over the years to achieve measurable impact for the SDGs;
  3. Policy, will support development of instruments, partnerships and mechanisms to strengthen privacy and data protection  and allow ethical use of data and AI across different sectors.

What we want to achieve with this agenda

UN Global Pulse is a seasoned innovator and thought leader for the UN system and we are uniquely positioned to assist UN partners in leveraging big data and artificial intelligence for the public good. 

Some key components of our agenda as we kick off a second decade of UN Global Pulse include: 

  1. Continuing to open new frontiers in AI for the public good by experimenting with new data sources and approaches, while also working to scale implementation of applications that have already yielded positive results to regional and global levels; 
  2. Championing AI innovation through the development of human rights-based and ethical governance frameworks to ensure a safe and equitable digital future for all; 
  3. Building more productive and forward-thinking relationships with our stakeholders;
  4. Consolidating and tracking engagement with our clients so we can design efficient service offerings and flexible, reusable tools that will allow us to move beyond providing one-off basis solutions;
  5. Brokering more partnerships on behalf of the entire UN System to give agencies access to game changing private sector data, tech and expertise; 
  6. Continuing to improve our internal processes, management tools,  and business practices. 

If we are to achieve the goals we set out in 2015, we need to rethink the way of doing business as usual. We have all seen the dystopian scenarios of human versus machine, and we know the risks that are associated with the rise of more intelligent technologies. What we need to do now, is to work towards a future in which these technologies are safely used whenever and wherever possible to save lives, better livelihoods and create a healthier planet. 

Read also: Repositioning Pulse Lab Jakarta 

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