The United Nations is positioning itself to turn the vast amount of digital data generated by users all over the world into a key source of information to help write and track the goals for the post-2015 development agenda.
The aim is to seize for development purposes data generated by individuals through digital networks, cellphone communications, Internet searches, electronic money purchases, satellite imagery and other such depositories to track and analyze information that sheds light on a wide range of such economic, behavioral and humanitarian matters as natural disasters, food prices and the spread of diseases.
The patterns detected from the data could be used to design and measure public policies relevant to the sustainable development goals, or SDGs, which are replacing the Millennium Development Goals expiring at the end of this year.
“If we are to truly ‘leave no one behind,’ we need a data revolution to identify new and innovative ways of gathering data, particularly in what have traditionally been considered ‘data-poor’ environments, said Jan Eliasson, the UN deputy secretary-general at a recent conference on measuring sustainable development.
The difficulties in gathering such data by the UN, however, couldn’t be more enormous, starting with persuading the private sector and ensuring governments that sharing such information will not be used outside the realm of development assessment or humanitarian action. At the same time, UN member states contend that they want to see more data being used by the UN for these purposes.
The UN will have to get on board with governments, including those either too poor to collect information themselves or too reluctant to share it, as well as with corporations like Google, Twitter and Facebook and cellphone carriers that gather huge quantities of data. These companies could present legitimate concerns about users’ privacy and commercially sensitive interests. Public-private partnerships will also require extensive negotiations.
The UN began exploring these possibilities in 2009 when it introduced Global Pulse, an initiative financed by governments — including Australia, Britain, Denmark and Sweden — as well as private foundations. The initiative has already created specific projects to analyze data generated by users on mobile platforms and digital social networks.
“We have partnerships with mobile phone carriers, data providers, social media companies and data analysis organizations that provide the tools to do this kind of work, who help us with our innovation projects in partnership with UN agencies,” said Robert Kirkpatrick, the director of Global Pulse, in an interview. Kirkpatrick is an American educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His background is developing software for use in humanitarian settings and other fields.
Global Pulse is based in New York and has laboratories in Indonesia and Uganda. So far, it has developed about 40 projects in more than a dozen countries. One example of its work was analyzing cellphone activity of people in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco, where severe flooding occurred in 2009. Analysts tracked mobile data over nine months (before, during and after the flood) to detect behavioral patterns that could assist the government in carrying out a better emergency response in the future.
Efforts by Global Pulse to persuade the private sector to collaborate has been done for select projects only, but as Kirkpatrick said: “Ultimately, this is about the transformation of the public sector. That means you’re going to need to see government and private sector joining hands locally, nationally, regionally, globally to find sustainable ways of working toward common goals.”
Kirkpatrick said that companies understand that although the UN does not have a commercial interest in their data, it does have a global mandate to pursue international development and humanitarian action. This sets the UN “in the unique place to explore, in a kind of safe sandbox, how this data could be transformed into a public good,” he said.
“What better organization than the United Nations to figure out how to begin harnessing it, how to prevent it from being an extractive industry, how to make sure that its benefits reach everyone in a fully inclusive way, and that its not misused?”
To convince parties to participate in such socially altruistic purposes, the UN published a report in November 2014 called “The Data Revolution,” featuring recommendations from outside data experts on how the new Sustainable Development Goals could succeed by combining traditional statistics and users’ data “to monitor progress, hold governments accountable and foster sustainable development,” the report said.
One recommendation was to create a “UN-led global partnership” to coordinate the actions and institutions that are required to make the data revolution serve the nonprofit world of sustainable development. One way to persuade the private sector to join the UN quest for measuring development is to emphasize such cooperation as a positive marketing strategy, the report said.
“There is the perennial question of commercial sensitive data,” said Claire Melamed, a director of the Overseas Development Institute, a British organization. “For many companies, their data is their resource, so to ask them to give it away is quite a big ask. And there are concerns about privacy, especially in the post-Snowden and post-NSA scandals.”
Melamed, an expert in the Data Revolution initiative, said that many companies would not want to jeopardize the privacy of their users, and that the people who use their platforms would not want that to happen, either. “These are legitimate concerns,” she said.
For Shaida Badiee, a co-founder of Open Data Watch, a civil society organization working on development data management and statistical capacity building in developing countries, efforts to establish a link between the public sector and those in the private sector that harbor users’ data “has been a big problem.”
Talking about cellphone carriers, a key source for data, Badiee said that “for them, it is about bringing financial resources, but the issues we talk about in the data revolution are of social value and social obligation. So, to make the two worlds talk to each other has been very challenging.”
Badiee, a participant in the Data Revolution plan too, provided one example: the French-based cellphone carrier Orange has been contributing to development projects in the African region where it operates. The Spanish company Telefónica, the second-largest carrier in Latin America, has also cooperated with Global Pulse, as in the case of the flooding in Tabasco in Mexico.
Another big hurdle for realizing the data revolution will be generated by governments. The mix of public and private sector data would be ideal to foster development but could hit a snag when it comes to political interests, suggested Enrico Giovannini, a former minister of labor and social policies in Italy and head of the UN Data Revolution initiative.
“The SDGs are not a legally binding process, so countries take political commitments [to achieve them], and this is exactly where the data will make a difference,” Giovannini said. “If we have more timely data, there will be continuous scrutiny on what countries are delivering. We will see more pressure from public opinion that will name and shame countries that are doing well or are not doing well.”
Countries needing the most development help would probably put up the greatest resistance to joining the data revolution wagon. Their needs are so dire that most would prioritize investments in health and education far ahead of creating information and statistics infrastructure, Melamed said.
Kirkpatrick of Global Pulse said that in 2010, the case for using big data for development was like “rolling a rock uphill.” There was not much understanding as to what was possible, he said, as well as “not a lot of demand” and “a great deal of well-founded skepticism.”
While Kirkpatrick is confident that these attitudes have shifted (“demand and interest from the UN system and member states is absolutely skyrocketing,” he said), the real test for the Data Revolution and its appeal to UN member states will come in July, during the Addis Ababa Conference for Financing for Development. That is when priorities for allocating resources for the post-2015 agenda will be agreed on.
Kirpatrick is not waiting until July to make the case for data harvesting.
“The real point of the Data Revolution is what we’ve already seen happen in the private sector: entirely new business models,” he said. “Entirely new organizational processes that let you continuously adapt to the changing needs of your customers. How can we continuously adapt to the changing needs of vulnerable populations around the world? That’s a completely different mind-set.”
Madeleine Kuhns contributed to this report.