Big Data For Public Good

How the UN is using data to solve the world's most pressing problems


The United Nations charter was signed on the 26th of June 1945 in San Francisco. It was signed at the conclusion of an international conference by 51 states, a number which has since expanded to include 193 nations.

The charter was written as the world recovered from the second major war in 30 years, wars that had left millions dead and huge swathes of the developed world in ruins. The preamble of the charter sets out the key goals of the organization, resolving to work together to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, to establish conditions under which justice can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

There are three pillars of how the UN defines this project. The first is the pillar of international peace and security. This entails the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, suppression of acts of aggression and other breaches of the peace, and settlement of international disputes. The UN is currently involved in 16 peacekeeping operations worldwide. There have been 71 such operations since 1948. During this time, 3500 have lost their lives carrying out their duties, equating to roughly 1 every week.

The second pillar is human rights. The charter determines that the UN is there to promote and achieve fundamental human rights and freedom for all without distinction. Bodies in the UN lead the human rights effort and speak out against violations. They are a forum for identifying and highlighting today’s human rights challenges, including the provision of adequate housing, the rights of indigenous peoples, and preventing poverty, human trafficking, and racism, to name just a few.

The last pillar is development. The UN aims to achieve international co-operation in solving problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character. Organizations within the UN such as United Nations Development Program (UNDP) operate in almost 170 countries worldwide. They focus on sustainable development, democratic governance and peacebuilding, and climate and disaster resilience.

These three pillars have gone largely unchanged since 1945, but over the last 70 years, the UN has realized that these pillars are not separate considerations. Rather, they are all interrelated. This has been a huge boon in helping to enforce them, but it has also brought with it tremendous complexity when it comes to trying to drive change.

One of the defining moments in dealing with this complexity came in 2016, when countries around the world came together to sign the Paris Agreement. They resolved to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all, devising Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) so that every consideration could be factored in and they could see how they impacted one another. Each goal had specific targets - totalling 169 targets - that have to be achieved by 2030.

For the goals to be reached, everyone - governments, private sector enterprises, and citizens - must work together and make the right choices. Central to coordinating these efforts is big data. At the recent Big Data Innovation Summit in Boston, Michael Ibach, Chief Analytics Officer at the United Nations, described the evolving mandate of the UN, its information needs, the challenges in meeting these needs in a volatile political landscape, and how data, partnerships and technology are all vital to fulfilling their mission.

The key issue facing the UN, according to Ibach, is getting the right data. The UN’s analytics platforms and models, as is the case in the majority of enterprises, are only as good as the underlying data. The UN tries to get their hands on as much good data as possible by encouraging social dialogue so that more can be open sourced and democratized. At the same time as they make data available, however, they also have to ensure that the proper governance and platform mechanisms are in place. Another of the key principles the UN seeks to abide by when fuelling global communities is the fostering of diversity and inclusiveness in their sources, so they include key stakeholders in every part of the world who are affected by issues. This enables them to have a broad spectrum of data around their work which allows them to get better insights around causal factors on the issues facing countries at varying stages of their development and solutions that could actually work.

Open data is particularly important. The UN Open Data catalogue enables organizations to add and validate datasets. It promotes data dissemination in an accessible, timely, and coherent way. Coverage includes the UN systems program and management data for the benefit of the public and for the specific stakeholders such as member states. It’s a collection of metadata records with an identifier collection of structured data objects unified by criteria such as authorship, subject, scope, or temporal extent. One of the key challenges in their data collection efforts is encouraging private enterprise and academics to share their data. The UN has to make a case that it is in their interest or incentivize private companies to share their data, which requires grants. Data collaborations are a new challenge and there is a real opportunity for the community of official statistics in relation to the SDGs through the sharing of data, services, technologies, and know how.  

Oliver J. M. Chinganya, Director, African Centre for Statistics, notes that: 

"The private sector remains mainly as a user or broker of open (government) data, it is not a provider of data. It’s not easy to make a strong case for company leaders to open their data, but a few possible arguments include:

  • Contribution for the social good, especially for companies whose business model depends on data generated by the public (social network, telecommunication companies; ‘we believe in the moral obligation of data-driven organizations to share data and contribute to society.’ - BBVA)
  • Increase consumer trust and public trust e.g. for parastatal companies in the mining industry (Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) which can distantly relate to an increase in benefits

However, companies are there to make money, and the argument about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) alone will not necessarily work. There is a need to involve the private sector when developing policies and strategies on public-private partnerships for data."

The challenge is not only in systematically collecting data, though. The demand from senior management is now systematically analyzing the data collected. According to Ibach, the UN is still behind in this area. They need regulatory frameworks that determine how they use this data and they need to increase the use of hackathons, which have already proven highly successly. For example, in 2010, the UN launched a new mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC was suffering from an influx of refugees, primarily from Rwanda in 1994, which led to a huge conflict in the DRC, which led to struggles for political control, ethnic tensions, a power struggle for access to basic resources, and exploitation. This all led to an absence of law and justice and thousands of fatalities. The UN produced data visualizations alongside private sector partners in a hackathon that revealed how factors had changed and caused the breakdown. They used publicly available data operated by a group of scientists from the University of Sussex that covered all the political violence and protests across 16 developing countries, primarily in Africa and Asia, including actors in these events, the role of the UN, changes in territorial control, and recorded fatalities.

Data is a powerful tool and it is vital that it be used for the public good. The UN has made significant headway in doing this, but it needs more from private enterprise, both in sharing data and providing the expertise enabling it to be analyzed. They are getting there, but there is still a way to go.


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