Big Data for Big Good

With all of this talk of “big data,” it’s sometimes hard to sift through the potential functions of using big data to find a way to apply it for the greater good. Tim Barker from DataSift sat down with Daniel Pedraza from UN Global Pulse to dig deeper into their altruistic mission.


So what exactly is Global Pulse? Pedraza explained that they are the “innovation initiative” startup of the United Nations that provides research and technological innovation to help achieve the “2030 Agenda.” The goals are massive in scope: reduce poverty, decrease global hunger, provide better healthcare, and ensure clean water. To do this, Global Pulse partners with businesses that collect big data sets, and work to better understand human behavior.

Quantify Tweets to protect vulnerable populations

By using social data, Global Pulse can also observe trends in real-time and essentially stay ahead of the curve in helping others make important decisions. In our modern society, humans are acting as “sensor networks,” which allows organizations like Global Pulse to look at their collective behavior to help control human reactions to different factors.

When prices of food, gasoline, and other consumer commodities increased in Jakarta, Indonesia, Global Pulse used Twitter Data to understand changes in trends and behavior. One example: when changes in consumer goods prices in Indonesia increased, so did Tweets—in fact, there was a 0.9 correlation between the two. By monitoring “complainanomics” in this way, Global Pulse and other governments can observe spikes in conversation regarding food security, and understand how at-risk populations are impacted. And Twitter is there to provide information from their rich data source, an aggregate of human thought and emotion, all in real-time.

Observe financial transactions to provide better disaster relief

Although social data exists as some of the most available sets of big data, Global Pulse looks to multiple types of information to understand how global populations react to events. And in the same way that social data relies on private companies (like Twitter) to donate data, other types of business can help, too.

After Hurricane Odile, BBVA—one of the world’s most influential banks—provided anonymized point of sale and ATM data from Mexico to Global Pulse. The aim? Understand how the population coped: by understanding the types of goods bought before and after the storm, the UN can help governments provide better disaster relief in the future.

This work is also hard though

But with how rewarding the work that Global Pulse accomplishes, it does come with its fair share of risks and regulation. With everything they do, Global Pulse has to be cognisant of the risk involved, especially when analyzing behavior in more tumultuous regions or vulnerable communities. By working with global regulators to foster a worldwide conversation, Global Pulse can better aggregate data to gain a clearer picture before making decisions, especially those that could potentially damage society, if executed poorly.

Partnerships with the Private sector is key to better serving global populations (and there’s upside for them, too)

The UN and its member governments generally don’t have the ability or funds to collect data at scale—even though large data sets are key to achieving the “2030 Agenda” items like reduced poverty and hunger. Thanks to its startup mentality and technological savvy, Global Pulse is able to bridge the gap between the UN, government, and businesses for the greater good.

One recent example is that in February 2017, GSMA (the trade association composed of 1200 mobile carriers worldwide) announced the Big Data for Social Good Initiative. Though the data is still new and use cases are being developed, one of the first projects will be to analyze how people travel through regions facing epidemics. By understanding anonymized, aggregated movement patterns tracked on personal mobile devices—and correlating it to hospital intake data and other public signals—relief providers and governments can better predict when and how to deploy aid to affected regions.

According to Pedraza, there’s a common idiom at the UN: “The UN was created not to take mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell.” By connecting the data from the private sectors to the needs of at-risk populations, Global Pulse plays a modern, crucial role in that mission.

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