Informal Briefing to the United Nations General Assembly

Robert Kirkpatrick
Nov 5, 2010

On Thursday November 4th 2010, Global Pulse Director Robert Kirkpatrick delivered the following briefing to the United Nations General Assembly about the Global Pulse project. Mr Kirkpatrick was preceded by Assistant Secretary-General Robert Orr who provided an overview of the initiative and followed by senior representatives from the World Food Programme, Unicef and UNDP, who detailed their close interagency collaboration facilitated by Global Pulse.


Thank you for the valuable advice you have provided to date on this initiative. It has greatly enriched our thinking on how to address the challenges Mr. Orr has described. We would like to use today's briefing to share some of our initial thoughts on how Global Pulse could work, and more importantly we would like to hear from you on where you see its added value. We see today's meeting as the continuation of a dialog that we hope will be very active in the months ahead.

Since this project began, we have made tremendous progress:

  • We have assembled a strong team consisting of UN Agency secondments and technology experts from outside of the UN.
  • We are supporting eight different interagency research projects. These projects look at cross-sectoral analysis of the impacts of the global economic crisis on vulnerable populations.
  • We have completed a survey that has already identified more than 100 mobile phone data collection initiatives around the world that could be useful for Global Pulse.
  • We have also compiled an inventory of the 39 early warning systems within the UN.
  • We have consulted extensively with Member States, UN agencies, researchers, technology experts and development experts on how best to address the challenges posed by this initiative.
  • We have published two reports on what impacts the crisis are having on the world's most vulnerable populations.

You will see much more in the months ahead.

Closing the information gap for decision makers is an ambitious goal that will require the UN's collective expertise, both that of Member States and that of UN agencies. In essence, the Global Pulse is an initiative to support governments in understanding what is happening to their most vulnerable populations in real-time. To make this possible, governments need access to real-time information on the welfare of their populations. They need new technologies to collect, filter, and analyze this information in order to know when populations may be feeling the early impacts of external shocks. And they need to develop the capacity to use real-time information to make policy decisions. Please let me share with you some of our initial ideas on how we might address these challenges.

In addressing the real-time information challenge, we see three potential sources of information that could be used to power Global Pulse.

First, as Mr. Orr mentioned, we already have 39 early warning systems within the UN system that contain valuable high-frequency real-time data. This data is currently used primarily for sector-specific monitoring, so we see a significant opportunity here to bring together key data from different systems to better understand the cross-sectoral impacts of crises.

We also see enormous progress in the use of mobile phones and other technologies to accelerate collection of data otherwise collected on paper. The recent census exercise has shown that many governments are already using these new approaches. We see here an opportunity for high-value South-South collaboration in refining, sharing, and mainstreaming the use of these tools to improve efficiency and agility. Finally, there is a great deal of real-time information that is being generated by development programs and services that can be used for vulnerability analysis

In countries around the world, for example, mobile phones are now being used to send remittances, redeem food vouchers, provide guidance to new mothers, share agricultural price information between farmers and offer educational assistance to children. To monitor and evaluate the performance of these services, the government ministries and UN agencies often collect statistical information about how these services are used. We believe that governments can more deeply analyze this data to detect the early signals that vulnerable populations may be in trouble. Once a pattern of concern has emerged, governments could then rapidly send teams to those communities to conduct household surveys, to collect the hard statistical evidence needed for policy responses.

So we can get the information we need, but what kind of technology could power Global Pulse? Fortunately, here, too, part of the solution is all around us. We are in the midst of a technology revolution. Every day we learn of exciting new tools for collecting, analyzing, mapping, and visualizing information. According to a recent report by the International Telecommunications Union, a mobile phone signal now covers 90% of the world's population. Technology innovation is transforming our lives – and accelerating global development. Some of the most dramatic innovations in the use of technology are happening in the Global South. Mobile phone-based banking, for example, has been around for years in sub-Saharan Africa. We're still waiting for this invention here in New York!

Clearly, then, the building blocks already exist from which we can create the technology to power Global Pulse. In order to assemble these tools into a powerful analytical toolkit for governments, we don't believe that it would be cost-effective to take the traditional approach of outsourcing the development of the system to external consultants. Nor would we achieve the level of innovation required for success. Instead, we propose to leverage the reach and convening power of the UN in a new way.

In the past decade, we have witnessed the rise of the open source software moment. Technology experts around the world are volunteering their time, expertise, and innovative ideas to create technology tools that are free for anyone to use. Earlier this year, in response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti, thousands of these technology experts joined forces online and worked night and day to create technology tools that UN agencies were able to use to coordinate delivery of life-saving interventions. It is truly a remarkable world we live in. Today, we believe we have an opportunity to harness this collective force for innovation by providing this community – many of whom are in the Global South - with an exciting role in helping us build the technology toolkit that will power Global Pulse.

For three days, from the 1st to the 3rd of December this year, we will host the first Global Pulse Technology Workshop. This event will bring together 100 technology experts, academic researchers, and creative thinkers from around the world to design the technology framework, or architecture, that will be used to assemble the technology for Global Pulse out of existing software that is already available to anyone for free.

Then, on December 4th and 5th, we are co-hosting a 2-day event here in New York, in partnership with a global consortium that represents more than 3000 volunteer technology experts dedicated to creating free and open source technology tools for crisis response. Thousands of volunteers around the world will compete to develop solutions to challenges in relief and development. A number of these challenges will involve creating portions of the Global Pulse toolkit. This event will be held simultaneously in Brazil, Kenya, Denmark, India, Germany, Chile, and Zambia. In the coming year, we'll participate in other similar events, until we have a toolkit that meets the needs of Member States.

Armed the right data and the right tools, the third challenge we face is to learn how to use real-time information and emerging technologies for early impact and vulnerability analysis. One idea we had here is that Member States – with the support of the UN -- could establish a network of innovation centers, or "Pulse Laboratories", to support the work of government in implementing country-level real-time vulnerability monitoring systems. We've envisioned these Pulse Labs as places staffed by a multi-disciplinary innovation team comprised of government personnel, UN development experts, technology experts, and academic researchers. These team's mission would be to test new technologies, analytical approaches, and the utility of real-time data, learn what works, what doesn't and why, and scale up the most effective, proven solutions. All data collected and analyzed by these Pulse Labs would be owned and stored securely by government and used by government for analysis purposes.

There are innovation centers similar to the notion of a Pulse Lab opening up around the world, where teams are exploring the use of new technologies for development. In fact, the Ugandan government in partnership with UNICEF is already using this approach, where they have a technology innovation team experimenting with new ways to use mobile phones and other technologies for real-time monitoring in the health and education sectors.

The government of Uganda has recognized this opportunity for synergy and has proposed that we establish the first of these Pulse Labs in Kampala, building on the innovative work they are already doing with UNICEF. Pulse Lab Kampala will open its doors early next year with a series of country-wide technology innovation contests and public workshops to tap into local knowledge about how different external shocks affect different populations and what technologies could be useful to government. Next year you will see a series of events around the world to harness innovation. The reach and convening power of the United Nations will allow us to bring together the best ideas about what real-time information sources are useful, what technologies could help us analyze this information, and how this information could be used to protect the vulnerable. As a start, two Pulse Labs could be established in 2011, and four more in 2012.

Early next year we will publish the technical design for the Global Pulse technology platform, and the first version of the technology will be available later that year. You will also see periodic reports on what we are learning in our research about approaches to vulnerability analysis, about the impacts of the current crisis on vulnerable populations, and about concerning trends and emerging vulnerabilities in this new world of real-time information, and this new age of volatility.

You our Member States will need to be the creative force behind this initiative. Your ideas, advice and guidance will be crucial to making Global Pulse a success. We look forward to engaging with you in the months and years ahead.

Thank you!

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