September 6, 2013

UN Taking Big Data Pulse for Humanitarian Efforts

Isaac Lopez

Can mobile phone data in the third world provide insights on drought? Can social media be used to help understand gaps and shape people’s perceptions of HIV? A new initiative by the United Nations, called Global Pulse, say they intend to big data technologies to ask and answer these questions and more.

The program, established by the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General, looks to use data readily available in the public domain to build real-time predictive analytic models that can be used to provide actionable information on events happening around the world. The initiative works by acquiring and applying real time data to global problems afflicting the most vulnerable around the world. Through their R&D efforts, the group aims to discover new indicators in the massive amounts of data available to them to identify and track improvements to barriers to population wellbeing.

In order to fuel this research, the initiative is constantly working to forge new partnerships with companies and organizations that have the data they need to locate these indicators. One of the concepts that the group is working to develop is that of “Data Philanthropy,” where private sector companies share their data for the feel good philanthropic purposes of tracking disease, thwarting economic downturns, and predicting food shortages.

Spokeswoman, and partnership manager, Anoush Tatevossian, explains the program in further detail here:

The program, which was first launched in 2011, has quite a bit of momentum behind it, with around two dozen research projects behind it. In one study, the researchers used 8 years of unstructured news data from French media to discover whether it is possible to track and understand thematic shifts in media attention to predictively monitor world food security. Using automated data mining, text analysis, and semantic clustering, they say that they were able to track emerging trends in food security on a real-time basis.

In another research program, the group is studying the feasibility of analyzing data (including social media, blogs, news media and web searches) to identify barriers that small businesses and individuals in Kenya face in accessing loans. The goal, they say, is to identify gaps in access to finance so that partner, USAID, can use partial credit to fill them.

As part of their strategic program, the organization is working to establish a network of “Pulse Labs,” which they will use as centers for conducting and collaborating on their research. Currently, two labs have been established in New York, and Jakarta, Indonesia, with another coming on line this year in Kampala, Uganda.

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