Big Data and the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda

The volume of data in the world is increasing exponentially, and with it the opportunity to take on the many environmental, social and developmental challenges facing the world. In other words, big data represents a catalyst for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, as set by the United Nations (UN). The opportunity is there for governments, business, academia and civil society to drive forward this movement. And the UN is looking to be of enabling forefront of this movement.

Big Data and the Sustainable Development Goals

A strong case can be made for the fact that at the heart of making significant progress on the many challenges associated with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lies big data. Social media activity can help measure public trust in political institutions (SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) or public discourse on climate change (SDG 13 – Climate Action). In addition, mobile phone spending patterns can be used as a proxy to indicate income levels (SDG 1 – No Poverty). In this sense, data is key to informing decision-making on the part of policy-makers. Information on these issues can inform more innovative policy measures on the part of governments, more sustainable business practices, more effective and rapid humanitarian interventions. At the UN they are not blind to this opportunity. The Global Pulse – the UN’s flagship big data initiative – was established in 2009 as a special initiative of then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It is aiming to accelerate innovative discoveries by raising awareness of the opportunities to address challenges within sustainable development and humanitarian affairs.

Informing climate discourse through Twitter

There is no shortage of interesting examples of the power of big data in tackling global challenges. Ericsson estimates that in 2020 there will be approximately 6.1 billion smartphone users worldwide. Imagine the scope of information collection available to key stakeholders. Take for example how the UN Global Pulse used Twitter to map and understand the public discourse on climate change, in support of the UN Climate Change Summit in 2014. With the help of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Paris Institute of Political Science (Sciences Po) and the French Institute for Research and Innovation in Society (IFRIS), Global Pulse developed a catalogue of around 1,000 words and phrases related to climate change. Twitter provided a tool to measure public engagement on Twitter before, during and after the Climate Summit. Knowing what topics are discussed across countries and regions can help inform climate policy both at the national and global levels.

However, gaps remain

The volume of data is exploding. More data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race. However, while the amount of digital data being created globally is doubling every two years, only 0.5 percent of it is ever analyzed. Many people still go uncounted – including some of the most vulnerable populations groups. Mediocre and antiquated data are among some are among the challenges. Take into consideration that potentially 250 million people worldwide are not covered by household surveys (Carr-Hill, 2013). In other words, as many as 25-30 percent more people could be living on less than $1.90 a day than current estimates suggest. This only adds to the importance of collecting timely and accurate information. There is an urgent need to mobilize the data revolution for everyone in order to monitor progress, hold governments accountable and foster sustainable development.

Going forward

The first UN World Data Forum was held this year in January, in Cape Town. This was in recognition of the need to have the right tools in place to drive forward the 2030 Agenda through big data. The forum was the launching pad for the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Data, aiming to achieve global coordination and capacity building within data collection. Capacity building remains critical for developing countries, particularly African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, small island developing States and middle-income countries and other countries in vulnerable situations. The opportunities are there for the international society to move the sticks in time for the second UN World Data Forum in Dubai in two years. However, action plans and innovation must follow the same trajectory as that of the growth in data in order to properly inform key decision-makers across the spectrum of government, business and civil society.