A Decade of Leveraging Big Data for Sustainable Development.

AuthorKirkpatrick, Robert
PositionUnited Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) are driving global changes in our society--from the way we communicate with each other to the forces that shape our economy and behaviour. Insights generated from big data are already transforming many domains. Mobility data from mobile phone networks can reveal the extent of displacement after a disaster and help predict the spread of infectious diseases, while mobile airtime purchases can help track food consumption. Roofing materials visible from space serve as a proxy for poverty, changes in debit card usage indicate the impact of a crisis, and postal records have been used to estimate trade flows. At the same time, the rapidly evolving capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) offer new opportunities to unlock the value of big data for more evidence-based decision-making that can accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The United Nations has been advocating for a data revolution since before it had a name, and began working on big data applications just as the concept was emerging. By the time the global economic crisis (GEC) peaked in 2009, the international community had already been working to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for almost a decade. The GEC awakened many at the global level to two significant challenges: not only were we unable to anticipate where and when global hazards would originate, but we also could not predict who they would impact or how. Fundamentally, comprehensive information about critical stressors among vulnerable populations was unavailable in a timeline that would allow policymakers to respond with effective interventions.

UN Global Pulse was created in 2009 to assist the United Nations in leveraging big data and data analysis for sustainable development and humanitarian action. We began experimenting with mobile data and social media to understand how to turn them into actionable information. In 2011, we produced the first seminal report (1) that conceptualized how big data can be used to inform development practice. To ensure that our research was grounded in the realities of communities we were trying to assist, we developed a network of innovation centres that we call Pulse Labs. Opened in 2009, Pulse Lab New York serves as our headquarters. Pulse Lab Jakarta was established in 2012, followed by Pulse Lab Kampala in 2014.

In May 2013, the High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda called for a data revolution to ensure that no one is left behind. In response, then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon formed an Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) to provide advice and recommendations on how to accelerate the data revolution for sustainable development. Several of the key recommendations of the IAEG final report (2) are already a reality: a multi-stakeholder Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data has been created, and the second UN World Data Forum (3) was organized in 2018.

With the adoption of the SDGs in September 2015, and the shift to their implementation that followed, we have seen efforts around new sources of data explode. Yet, data-driven innovation and institutional adoption of analytics continue to lag, held back by a number of factors. On one hand, the lack of incentives for the private sector to share data and systematic barriers related to privacy have impeded the emergence of an enabling environment for innovation. On the other, we have too few examples of compelling operational projects that demonstrate how big data applications can be used at scale and replicated.


Seven years ago, UN Global Pulse began engaging the private sector in data philanthropy, through which we work with companies to put their data, technology and expertise to use for the public good. In 2013, we partnered with mobile operator Orange to launch the Data for Development challenge. (4) For the first time, a mobile database was anonymized and opened to researchers to develop applications for sustainable development.

We now have companies actively seeking ways to put the big data they collect to work for the SDGs. Recently, we worked with nine private enterprises--BBVA bank, Crimson Hexagon, Earth Networks, Nielsen, Orange, Planet, Plume Labs, Schneider Electric and Waze--to open their data sets to the international...

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