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The UN’s Lessons in Data Inspiration

The UN’s Lessons in Data Inspiration

Five Smart Elements of a Global “Data Revolution”

The United Nations recently held an event called “Data Playground” at the Microsoft Technology Center. The goal, according to the UN, was to “celebrate momentum around a ‘Data Revolution’ for sustainable development.”

(The tweets were particularly interesting and you can find them here: #dataplayground)

As goals go, that’s a pretty lofty one. Over the course of the evening, attendees heard presentations about crowdsourcing of data, interactive data visualizations, big data analysis and how to creatively tell stories based on data. In other words, they were having the same kind of conversations that are happening throughout executive suites around the world.

Of course, in this case, the goals are more social than business. UN representatives talked about how opening data to the planet can be democratizing. And how the act of simply asking people questions in zones affected by strife can be as much a part of providing some dignity as activating the actual results and insight from the information gathered.

To this end, there were maps of tweets after the massive Nepal earthquake. A team from Microsoft presented a climate visualization project. But a big part of the evening was spent explaining how the UN itself was already using Big Data to support 17 new sustainable development goals.

These goals were adopted by the UN’s 193 member states. While governments and community organizations are key, the UN has also said that “the new Global Goals cannot be achieved over the next fifteen years without data innovation” and “effective data collection, curation and utilization can enable a people-centered approach to sustainable development.”

The connection of this kind of data inspiration to what businesses must manage was not lost on us. And as we looked closely at the number of Global Projects the UN already has in place to further its development and data goals (you can see the full list here), we found five to be particularly notable:

  1. Crowdsourcing food prices in Indonesia: Food prices, and sudden spikes or drops in prices, can impact developing communities in big ways and lead to economic and security issues. In many rural areas, where food is sold in stalls or local markets, governments have no way to monitor prices. So the UN enlisted a group of citizen reporters, armed them with mobile phones, and built an app that lets them record and track prices of food.
  2. Monitoring biodiversity in Zimbabwe: The reduction in biodiversity, where plants and trees become more homogenous, can be problematic as it leaves them more susceptible to environmental issues or disease that wipe them out. So the UN has built a data visualization map to make it easier to track changes in populations of some animals and vegetations that are being threatened by fire or poachers in the hopes it will help policy leaders make better decisions.
  3. Citizen feedback for governments in Indonesia: The national government wants to decentralize and hand more power and decision-making to local governments. But these smaller bodies have fewer resources and less tech savvy. So the UN created a project to let citizens offer rapid feedback that could be rapidly analyzed to help local leaders make policy decisions. The feedback was also available on a public digital online dashboard to foster more transparency.
  4. Using social media to support forest fire management: Also in Indonesia, the UN created a system to monitor tweets about forest and peat fires. The UN found that in many cases, local residents were tweeting early about things like haze and visibility, possible indicators that fires had broken out. The hope is that earlier detection could help local firefighters react more quickly.
  5. Mobile phone data to track immigration: In Senegal, a group from the UN began monitoring anonymous mobile phone data to observe large changes in mobility. That is, when a large group of people suddenly decide to move elsewhere in a very short time frame. The UN hopes this can also be an early-detection system for potential humanitarian issues, like conflict or food scarcity. Again, the sooner a problem is spotted, the faster relief agencies or policy makers can respond.

As several speakers noted, many of these projects are relatively new. But the hope is that they can be scaled across more regions over time to have a bigger impact.

While the issues are different, the way the UN is striving to experiment, report back results in a transparent way, and discuss failures and successes in an honest way, is a good model for any executive leader tackling the challenges presented by Big Data.

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