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UN Global Pulse Hosts Big Data for Development Session at the UN World Data Forum

Felicia Vacarelu
Jan 19, 2017

On Monday, 16 January 2017, UN Global Pulse hosted a session on ‘Big Data Innovations for Sustainable Development’ during the inaugural UN World Data Forum.

This week, government representatives, along with top UN, public, private, civil society and academic experts in statistics and data innovation gathered in Cape Town, South Africa, to take part in the UN World Data Forum, a three-day event exploring innovative ways in which data can support sustainable development and humanitarian action.

The importance of empowering all people through the data revolution and the opportunities and challenges that new data sources hold in implementing the 2030 Agenda were broadly discussed during the ‘Big Data Innovations for Sustainable Development’ session.

Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse, set the stage by remarking that “there is an extraordinary opportunity for the SGDs to combine precise measurements from traditional statistics with real-time data to allow for timely corrective actions on projects and programmes.”

The session kicked off with a presentation of innovation projects and displays of data visualizations and big data analysis. It was followed by a panel discussion and Q&A featuring senior representatives from government, the UN and private sector. The session ended with a compilation of data innovation resources and initiatives presented by UN and private sector colleagues.

The panel of experts explored the opportunities that big data innovations present in today’s complex world with examples from their organizations and companies.

Panel discussion highlights

Enda Ginting, Assistant Deputy with the Executive Office of the President of the Republic of Indonesia, underlined the importance of partnerships between internal governments as a precursor to public-private partnerships.

Ginting spoke about the need for government to understand how to process data outside of its usual resources, referring to new data sources. Some of these innovations may be novel, “but if the processes are not able to digest them, they are not going to be used. If you can prove, in Cabinet, and in government, that a different way may produce results, then I think we are one step closer to understanding how to implement big data in government.”

Panelists discussed short-term opportunities for data innovation and how to better seize them through partnerships, government involvement and a better understanding of the advantages of using data.

Mallory Soldner from the United Parcel Service (UPS) urged companies to support data philanthropy by “donating their data, donating their data scientists, and donating technology, to capture data that is not already being captured” for the public good.

One largely debated topic centered around data policies and partnerships conducive to data production and data generation. Discussions pinpointed that while there are still barriers impeding data sharing, recent years have seen favorable signals in the collaboration between private and public sectors.

Juan Murillo Arias, a data specialist with BBVA Data & Analytics, called for all actors to work together and stressed the importance of combining traditional statistics with new sources of data “that are aggregated and anonymized.” He also highlighted the significance of financial investments to drive projects from case studies to operational use.

Arif Husain, Chief Economist at WFP, indicated that data access on its own is only part of the equation. He emphasized the importance of methodologies and supportive research to distil that information for policy decision-making. “Big data analysis enables us to target places based on specific information (...) it is safer, cheaper and faster” compared to traditional collection mechanisms.

Panelists stressed that measuring and achieving the SDGs demands new technologies and innovations that can integrate and complement traditional statistics. “There are many nuances in datasets, there is noise and bias in the data and that is why traditional methods can complement new data sources out there today,” stated Soldner.

In his closing remarks, Prof. Bitange Ndemo, former Permanent Secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication, urged participants to embrace the data revolution and reminded that harnessing big data for the SDGs will require: (I) adequate privacy and policy frameworks for the safe and responsible use of big data; (II) ensuring big data is used to drive process towards development and protecting the vulnerable, and (III) public-private collaborations, with companies engaging in data philanthropy.

The session was one of two sessions organized by UN Global Pulse at the #UNDataForum and gathered more than 800 participants.

Download the agenda of the session here

Watch the full stream here

Download speaker biographies here

BD4D resources and initiatives that were presented

  • A Guide to Data Innovation for Development - From idea to proof-of-concept,’ a step by step guide for working with new sources of data, from UNDP and UN Global Pulse;
  • Big data and the well-being of women and girls, an initiative by Data2x to demonstrate methods and approaches to close gaps in information about the lives of women and girls;
  • An initiative on big data insights on transportation and urban planning in Sri Lanka to inform planning and implementation stages of the Western Region Megapolis Project, by LIRNEasia;
  • Data Science in Africa, an initiative comprising of a network of practitioners interested in new forms of data, relevant to the African context, from Pulse Lab Kampala;
  • Integrating Big Data Into the Monitoring and Evaluation of Development Programmes,’ a publication that outlines the opportunities around using data analytics for development M&E from UN Global Pulse and the Rockefeller Foundation.

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