Using Data for Good: Challenges and Opportunities

In Data & Analytics by caitlin

UN flags Sometimes, we all get carried away with how businesses can use data to cut costs, better engage with customers or increase revenue. We should really take a minute (or much, much more in my case) to realize Big Data can be used for global good too. Since 2000, the World Bank has invested over $500M into improving statistical systems, which will in turn provide incredible opportunity for insights into disease epidemics, environmental degradation, all realms of education and much more. To give you an idea as to how and why data governance can really make a difference in economies around the world, we should quickly note the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In September 2000, the member states of the United Nations declared a mission, supported by 18 quantified and time-bound targets and 48 indicators, to better understand and rate development initiatives. The MDGs aim to achieve significant, measurable improvements in people’s lives by the year 2015. After reading a very brief summary of the MDGs, don't you think we would need some sort of database to actually complete this overall goal? Mostly, if not completely, because the success of the mission is based on quantifiable data? If so, you would be correct. A major problem in development projects throughout history has been a lack of solid data to prove or refute program success. As a result, the World Bank hosts a DataBank and Data Catalog. The Development Data Group is responsible for coordinating the collection of data and statistics from the national databases, while ensuring quality and integrity. funny sign

Now, if you were working with countries and regions from all over the world, while simultaneously being responsible for integrity, what are the challenges you might be facing? The first that should come to mind is the fact that you are dealing with countries that can hardly provide running water and food security to  their population, let alone manage any kind of census. If you've ever been to a "developing country," you know that Google Maps doesn't exactly provide you the best sense of direction. Gathering data in these particular environments requires dedicated individuals utilizing technology to track and trace population growth, geographies and resources. (Insert shout out to my alma mater GWU and favorite professor David Rain here: Geography Team Researches Health Inequalities) Most people located in country do not have access to adequate education or training to manage these types of projects. As opposed to being overwhelmed with so much data here in the US, there is an incredible opportunity for data mining that would better inform databases like those run by the United Nations, but an inability to move forward with action.

UN global pulse DigitalSignalsThis is not a simple matter of merging all the data collected by public, private, not-for-profit, for-profit, and government organizations into a ginormous UN database. We need input from the best engineers and data scientists in the world to make this really work. Additionally, we need to train those within countries of interest (read: everywhere), so they can integrate their innate knowledge of communities with the necessary education. Divisions like UN Global Pulse are working on just that issue and their tagline, "Harnessing innovation to protect the vulnerable" speaks for itself. The organization partners with everyone from local grassroots champions to leading professionals at Google. Taken directly from their info section because it's too perfect to paraphrase:

Global Pulse hopes to contribute a future in which access to better information sooner makes it possible to keep international development on track, protect the world’s most vulnerable populations, and strengthen resilience to global shocks.

You can learn more about the specific programs in place to aid in this mission, but they are addressing the problems outlined earlier. By establishing partnerships and understanding the great need for accurate data from every village, no matter how small or large, we can move forward in harnessing this data and both implementing sustainable solutions and prevent future disasters. And yes, I'm sure all this information will eventually be used for market research, product management and marketing programs.

Learn more about Big Data mining, architecture, strategy, protection and more at Big Data World Canada! Read more on the intersection of Data and development on the World Bank Chief Economist for Africa's blog here, as well as on the World Bank Data Blog: Open Data.