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Global Pulse Shows How Big Data Can Help Keep Sustainable Development on Track

14.07.2015  17:01
UN Secretary-General’s Global Pulse Initiative Shows How Big Data Can Help Keep Sustainable Development on Track
 UN Global Pulse has published a collection of new case studies that showcases the potential of big data in humanitarian and development work. They show what can be achieved when data obtained from social media and other modern technology is used to analyze human behavior.

The results can be used to tailor efforts to people in need on an unprecedented scale. UN Global Pulse is one of several innovation projects across the UN system that has received targeted earmarked financing from Denmark, aimed at spurring an innovation culture with the UN funds and programs.

“Global Pulse was created by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon five years ago, to explore how real-time data can inform and modernize how the UN responds to a fast-changing world. The collection of case studies released today, showcases significant progress. Agencies and Global Pulse are innovating together as “One UN” in the use of big data and analytics to achieve and measure sustainable development goals,” says Global Pulse Director Robert Kirkpatrick.

UN Global Pulse acts as a data innovation lab, working with UN agencies to learn how analysis of real-time data from smartphones and social media, for example. If the data can be extracted at an aggregate level to protect privacy, it can be utilized for public good, and shed light on changing crises or other socio-economic dynamics in real-time.



(Pulse Lab Jakarta at Data for Policy Makers Conference. Photo: Global Pulse)

UN Global Pulse is currently in the early stages of its work, but if big data analysis can be taken to scale and incorporated in the work of both UN agencies and other actors, the potential is clear, as the following examples show.

Social Media Shows Real-Time Changes in Food Prices

Indonesia is one of the most social media-dense countries in the world, and the Global Pulse Lab in Jakarta conducted a research project to investigate whether it was possible to “nowcast” (estimate in near real-time) developments in food prices in Indonesia.

In collaboration with World Food Programme and the Indonesian government, a statistical model of daily price indicators for beef, chicken, onion and chili was comprised using Twitter content in Indonesian language.

Six keywords, such as the word “Rupiah” for currency, were used to gather tweets that included price quotes. For each tweet, price information was extracted and normalized, to make sure that all units were comparable. Global Pulse then used algorithms to remove outliers, before a price model based on prices from the previous day and filtered price quotes was applied, and a price point per day was calculated.

By narrowing down the search, the study came up with precise indicators that closely resembled official figures of price developments. This allows for an easier, faster way of tracking price developments in real time.   

Mobile Data Provides Insight on the Human Impacts of Natural Disasters

Another study shows how aggregated and anonymized data extracted from call records collected by mobile phone operators reveal new insights on human behavior during critical events.

After a severe flooding in the Mexican state of Tabasco in 2009, a study combined mobile phone activity data with remote sensing data to understand how people communicated during the flooding, in order to explore ways that mobile data can be used to improve disaster response. The results of the study showed that the patterns of mobile phone activity in affected locations during and after the floods could be used as indicators of (1) flooding impact on infrastructure and population and (2) public awareness of the disaster.

The data can potentially be used to assess needs and allocate resources (for example, sending supplied to affected areas). Identifying cell phone towers in the most affected areas of flooding might also serve to improve and target public communications and safety alerts, and measure the effectiveness of early warning announcements.  

Supporting Big Data across the UN - and the world

Global Pulse drives big data innovation from within the UN System to create the enabling environment needed to foster innovation and allow mainstream adoption of proven approaches. Summing up the work of the organization, Global Pulse works to:

1. Achieve a critical mass of big data for development projects

2. Lower systemic barriers to adoption and scaling

3. Strengthen the big data innovation eco-systems.

As an initiative of the UN Secretary-General, Global Pulse is well positioned to work with actors from across the UN system.

“Across the UN more and more actors are collaborating with Global Pulse to pilot data innovation projects to collectively learn and demonstrate how big data and innovative data analytics methods can support not only the measurement of sustainable development goals, but also be used to achieve them”, explains Robert Kirkpatrick.

In addition to its lab in New York, Global Pulse is also working from labs in Kampala, Uganda, and Jakarta, Indonesia. Denmark is among the supporters for UN Global Pulse, having contributed with DKK 4,000,000 to Global Pulse since 2013, and has in particular played an important role in the work of UN Global Pulse in Kampala.

Denmark decided to allocate money to UN Global Pulse as well as innovation activities in the UN funds and programs, because sometimes, direct support for new, innovative ways of thinking are needed, and UN Global Pulse is a prime example of an innovative way of thinking. Innovation is needed, because it can change the way we do development. Even though innovation can be risky business, the payoffs can be valuable. Furthermore, important lessons can be learned from failures.

The Future of Big Data

With an increasing focus on big data for sustainable development in the UN system, UN Global Pulse will have an expanding role to play. UN Global Pulse has successfully built a network of labs in different regions of the world, and some of the next steps for Global Pulse may be to take the projects to scale, help the UN agencies build capacity and further include big data in their humanitarian and development work. In the future, it will be interesting to see how big data can change the way we do development, and enable us to become more efficient in targeting responses to people in need.