Big Data for Development and Humanitarian Action: Towards Responsible Governance


As the 2030 Agenda moves into its implementation phase, new sources of socio-economic and behavioral data, collected by the private sector as part of their business offerings, will be needed to understand whether the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being achieved around the world, and to help ensure that no one is left behind. Applications of mobile network data, financial transaction data, postal flows data, and data collected from social media platforms show particular promise.

In recognition of the role that these emerging data sources are playing, together with innovations in technology and analysis, the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development published a report in 2014 entitled “A World that Counts.” The Report called for experimentation in data-driven innovation. It is clear that – in an increasingly interconnected world – data can and must be used for public good.

However, current frameworks for data and privacy protection have not kept pace with advances in technology, and often do not account for big data. Big data collected by the private sector as part of their commercial services make compliance in the context of repurposing those data sources for development and humanitarian action unclear (e.g., the original purpose of data collection or purposes other than business purposes).

For example, in the case of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, many argue that big data could have been useful in improving response efforts. At the time, accessing de-identified call detail records – or merely aggregated subscriber mobility patterns – from mobile networks, proved extremely difficult due to the lack of consensus on data protection and privacy standards. It is in this and similar contexts that privacy groups and researchers highlight the need for clearer guidance on how new data sources can be processed safely without hindering the important objectives of humanitarian and development response.

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