How Big Data can help the UN to deal with 21st Century Challenges

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At the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged organisations to come forward and establish stronger connections with the UN in order to truly change people’s lives for the better. Companies, said the Secretary General, must find meaningful, practical solutions to today’s problems; solutions that can help the world exist in a sustainable manner.
The Secretary-General certainly knew what he was talking about – sustainability is the buzzword for 2017 as businesses and large organisations strive to find solutions for the masses that give them access to education, health and sanitation, provide them with employment opportunities and clean energy sources and enable them to stand up to discrimination and prejudice. Moreover, all of this has been made possible because today we live in a world of big data; a world where human behaviour, trends, patterns and even policy decisions can be analysed and explained via an algorithm. Much of the IT investment today is geared towards storing and analysing big data, and already the private sector has harnessed its potential for purposes of marketing and ad displays.
As companies today ask themselves how they can use big data to help them make firm business decisions, the United Nations must also take stock of the situation and re-evaluate how it can use big data to gain a better understanding of the world by identifying problems and looking for solutions that make an impact. Data science can help us understand what is happening and why and the same technology can help the UN resolve many of the complex global issues faced by the world today.
This collaboration is the next logical step since the United Nations has perhaps the most extensive database of our world’s socio-economic and political history. Making some of this data public and working together with technology partners will help the UN make better decisions and strengthen its role as the most relevant intergovernmental organisation that upholds universal values including maintaining peace, the provision of human rights, enforcement of international law and developing and applying insights acquired from analysed data.
For starters, big data can help UNESCO understand labour market trends and developments. In several remote locations around the world, conducting on-ground surveys is costly and next to impossible given the lack of access. In such a situation, big data can provide a more real-time analysis via mobile phones. Partnerships with cellular service providers could be particularly useful since they would be able to give information about geographical trends, career and education goals, and the rates of success and failure. All this could help bodies like UNESCO make informed decisions about the labour market and the skilled work force.
Similarly, sentiment analysis and opinion mining can be instrumental in helping WHO learn more about how people perceive immunisation in countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya and India. In Pakistan, where polio health workers have been routinely attacked by conservative political groups, social media feeds (via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and news content can help WHO learn more about the influence of politicians and public figures as far as the vaccination debate is concerned. The data can then be used to assist public health workers and support communication campaigns to reshape public opinion.
Opinion mining, however, can only be effective if fake news can be filtered out from the real. Many expressed concerns about the effects of fake news circulating largely through social media. While we can speculate all, we want over the ‘what ifs’, the fact is fake news is a real problem when it comes to learning about the sentiment of the masses. Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence is key to determine data veracity. Tools such as Hoaxy, Spike, CrowdTangle and Google Trends can all help identify the veracity of user-generated online content and by tagging fake websites through careful search monitoring. Taking this process a step further is the development of AI news writing bots which produces unbiased, objective news content so that readers/viewers can form informed opinions.
Advancements in technology have also drastically changed the way humanitarian organisations respond to disasters. Big data tools can effectively process information related to crises; it can give insight into the on-ground situation and produce an effective response to disasters. For instance, the online crowdsourcing platform that collected data for the Haiti earthquake 2010 was Ushahidi. The app provides a platform for developing crowd maps through data provided by the citizens on the ground. In places like Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Kenya where post-election violence, terrorist attacks on civilian institutions, infrastructure failures, crowd control problems and public disorder is the norm, data mining and analysis apps like Ushahidi can change the way UN provides humanitarian aid and development.
The potential of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data to enable public good and sound policy decisions are huge. The goal now should be to establish guidelines and benchmarks that encourage its use to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UN programmes and missions must now incorporate big data for purposes of innovation, development, peacekeeping and humanitarian response. It can help the United Nations expand its knowledge about certain issues, giving it the ability to predict and even pre-empt the next challenge. This can only happen if collaborations are encouraged and the UN works in tandem with global data scientists to further the cause of discovery, knowledge and understanding.
The world is standing at the precipice of a global data revolution, and the UN can spearhead that change if it can establish partnerships with data companies, do pilot runs and monitor results. Only then can UN impacted lives of many and fulfil its mandate to maintain global peace and security.
By: Dr. Seppe Verheyen, Research Fellow, 21st Century Diplomacy at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy