UN Global Pulse: a United Nations innovation network with a ripple effect

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I have worked at UN Global Pulse for seven years now. In those years, I have met colleagues who thought that UN Global Pulse does the most groundbreaking work in the United Nations (UN) system and others who believed that UN Global Pulse is all about fancy data visualizations and frontier technologies that are not relevant for the real work of the UN on the ground. When I presented the work of the network at international conferences over the years, participants in the audience perceived me as a thought leader at times and as a dreamer at others.

Why the extreme opinions? I believe that it is because, sometimes, impact is only observed as the ripple effect of a stone thrown in the water. Noticing the impact requires looking beyond the stone hitting the surface and sinking in the water; it requires looking at the ripples expanding on the water’s surface, sometimes so far that the eye cannot see them growing bigger and bigger in the distance. In the book chapter, “UN Global Pulse: A UN Innovation Initiative with a Multiplier Effect“, I tell the story of how UN Global Pulse created some ripples over the years with an impact on the UN system and beyond.

The chapter is part of the book “Data Science for Social Good. Philanthropy and Social Impact in a Complex World”, a great collection of insights by thought leaders at first-mover organizations in the emerging field of “Data Science for Social Good”. The book presents research on data science for social impact, with connections to complex systems, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). It connects the perspectives of researchers and funders, outlining a research agenda and open problems in the field.

Catalyzer of change – digital data

In my chapter, I describe how UN Global Pulse organically became a catalyzer of change. In the first stage of the organic process, the initiative focused on pioneering the discovery, access, and analysis of new digital data sources to support sustainable development, humanitarian action, and peace. With this objective, an enthusiastic small team collaborated and co-created with partners to implement a large number of proof-of-concept and pilot research projects showcasing how different data sources, ranging from vessel location to household water consumption, could be used to support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The applied research conducted with anonymized data generated from mobile networks and devices showed the riches of this data source because of the insights it provides about societal behavior. UN Global Pulse’s vast amount of work depicting the richness of this type of data and sustained by scientific publications (for example: “Analysing seasonal mobility patterns using mobile phone data”) had an important ripple effect: the advancement of data philanthropy in the private sector. An important milestone in this line of work was the publication with the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) of the report “The state of mobile data for good”.  The use of this data in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic by the UN and partners is a clear indicator of the impact of UN Global Pulse’s work.

Catalyzer of change – technology tools

With the implementation of projects to discover and tap into digital data sets, UN Global Pulse developed a wide range of toolkits, which constituted the next step in the organic process of becoming a catalyst of change. Toolkits were built with different technologies, from data engineering to machine learning and artificial neural networks. The toolkits were co-designed and deployed with partners for different purposes and tap into a variety of digital data sources.

Some of the technology toolkits inspired global platforms. For example, the tool VAMPIRE, an early warning system for climate impact, was ideated in our Lab in Indonesia, and co-designed and developed with World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), and the Indonesian President’s Office. It has since been adopted by WFP, and is now called PRISM.

The Nyanga Spatial tool was built in 2015 by UN Global Pulse and partners to support the formulation of National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAP) in Zimbabwe. The application of the Nyanga tool and the brainstorming with UN Global Pulse about scaling it up resulted in the design of the UN Biodiversity Lab that was launched in 2018 by the NBSAP Forum along with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The global platform  makes spatial data accessible for informed conservation decisions in countries across the globe.

Catalyzer of change – digital ethics

As the production of technology tools and the application for new innovative ways to support advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with partners continued, UN Global Pulse commenced to work on data privacy and protection. We led the work of digital ethics in the UN system, a next step in the organic process of becoming a catalyst of change.

This work yielded, for example, the adoption of the United Nations Development Group Guidance Note on Data Privacy, Ethics and Data Protection: Big Data for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda by the 32 UN Agencies. The guidance note sets out general direction on data privacy, data protection, and data ethics for the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) about the use of big data, collected by the private sector, and shared with UNDG members to achieve the 2030 Agenda. We saw direct impact of our work on data privacy and protection in the definition and  adoption of the first system-wide UN Principles on Personal Data Protection and Privacy in 2018. This is the first set of  principles adopted by the UN that establishes a framework for the processing of personal data by or on behalf of the UN System.

The ripples of the work on data privacy further expanded, implementing work on policy frameworks for the responsible use of AI, inspiring debates at the national, regional, and global level and more recently, fostering global digital cooperation.

The impact achieved by UN Global Pulse to date was possible thanks to a small but enthusiastic team working across our lab network (New York, Jakarta and Kampala) and a visionary leadership that chose teamwork and long-term impact over individual agendas and short-term gains.  When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab called me in Kampala to ask about our radio mining tool, I knew that the small but enthusiastic team had achieved more than anyone could have predicted.

After more than a decade implementing its mandate, UN Global Pulse is at a new crossroads. The network has grown recently with a new Lab in Finland and UN Global Pulse is now revisiting how to best continue having a positive impact in the UN system and beyond.  

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