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Big Data for Development Workshops: Learning by Doing

René Clausen Nielsen
Sep 23, 2015

While Global Pulse and our network of Pulse Labs serve as a safe space for innovation and experimentation with big data, part of our mission is to support adoption of big data innovations for sustainable development and humanitarian action. Often, this begins with awareness raising and sharing knowledge.

Over the past several months, we have been very pleased to be working with colleagues from UNDP Europe & Central Asia and UNDP Arab States, and UNFPA Eastern Europe & Central Asia on a number of excellent capacity-building workshops, learning journeys and pilot projects on big data innovation.

UNFPA Workshop in Istanbul

The summer workshop season kicked off in Istanbul where Global Pulse team members participated in an introduction to Big Data for Development and helped facilitate a workshop with UNFPA Eastern Europe & Central Asia (which was a follow up to the Big Data Bootcamp organized by UNFPA in Barcelona, in February). With 35 participants from 17 countries, it was a great opportunity to introduce UNFPA experts with a range of backgrounds to the concepts of Big Data and data science, talk about opportunities of leveraging new sources of digital big data for monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals, and show examples of applications already in practice.

UNDP Workshop in Skopje

Last year we began a collaboration with UNDP to support a Big Data Learning Journey, focusing on innovators from six different UNDP country offices that are eager to get their own hands dirty with big data.

Through a R&D event in the summer of last year and a series of conference calls after that, the work in individual Country Offices has progressed impressively. To help the teams help each other even better, and to give a another round of hopefully inspirational presentations, we all met for a workshop in sunny Skopje in July. Representatives from Global Pulse presented a thorough overview of the basics on data science and big data, including a tutorial on how to think through the steps of designing a good project. Our friends from UN Volunteers also presented how their services can be leveraged to get data scientists on board through their Online Volunteers Platform (a service that we have used with great results multiple times. Use it!).

And delegates from six UNDP country offices presented their ideas for using Big Data.

But a central part of this workshop was to have the participants actually get down to work. In the great facilities of The Social Innovation Lab of the Faculty of Computer Science and Engineering (FINKI), we worked with the country offices to shape the following project ideas:

  1. UNDP Armenia worked on a project using real-time, environmental sensors to measure, accumulate and eventually predict trends for mitigation of extreme weather events. This would lead to more resilient environment and citizens.
  2. UNDP Egypt also looked at sensor data, and focused on how to use data collected from sensor networks and other related data sources (weather, etc.) to support more resilient agriculture. Farmers will be advised on better and timely practices for planting and irrigation planning.
  3. UNDP Kosovo1 visualized and analyzed the spatial distribution of 112 calls to map the demand for emergency services and, consequently, the tailoring of emergency responses. The working hypothesis is that 112 calls can be an indicator of growing security and safety trends of a particular nature.
  4. UNDP FYR Macedonia wants to see how the way people use their phones indicates the mobility patterns and whether this can help to do better real-time risk assessments and show the patterns of where people flee in case of disasters (which can help authorities preposition supplies). Data sources are from the mobile operators (e.g. cell tower activity).
  5. UNDP Sudan worked on the hypothesis that electricity consumption can be used as a proxy indicator for financial well-being. Many people in Sudan buy electricity vouchers and the hypothesis is that money spent on these can be used as a proxy for poverty or spending power.
  6. UNDP Tunisia and its national partner, the Tunisian National Statistics Institute, are woking with real-time online data (e.g. Facebook, news, blogs, online forums, Twitter) to see how such data can complement traditional statistics to monitor citizens' perceptions and attitudes towards government. This initiative is expected to help the government improve its monitoring of the progress of SDG 16 (peaceful inclusive society, access to justice, accountable and inclusive institutions).

For a great write-up of the UNDP explorations, see this Voices from Eurasia blog post.

Stakeholder Meetings in FYR Macedonia and Kosovo

After the workshop in Skopje we also had the chance to meet UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Skopje, Louisa Vinton. We got to talk about potential uses of Big Data for UNDP FYR Macedonia with personnel from different teams in the country office, and discuss how it could all be done in a data privacy supporting manner with stakeholders from the Agency for Electronic Communication and representatives from all mobile operators.

UN Development Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Kosovo, Andrew Russell, had invited us to have similar talks in Pristina the next day.

I believe that different parts of these meetings, presentations and workshop sessions were eye-opening for all involved and we, the team at Global Pulse, surely have learned a lot about the specifics of the regions involved. Hopefully we have also been able to inspire and to share some of the specialised knowledge we have, so that UNFPA and UNDP can start using Big Data where needed so that their organisations can be data-driven and leverage the enormous potential that emerges when governments, academia, private sector companies, and the UN System collaborate on leveraging the data and knowledge that already exist. If the SDGs are to be reached, there is no time for reinventing the wheel. 

All in all, it's been a great summer, and we want to thank UNFPA and UNDP for helping to bring Big Data for Development to Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Arab States. We look forward to continuing on this journey together through continuing consultations and during the next UNDP workshop in December!

[1] References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).

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