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UN Launches Initiatives to Unleash Big Data for Sustainable Development

1 December 2017: The UN has launched several initiatives to strengthen countries’ use of big data for sustainable development, including a 12-point plan on privacy and governance issues. The UN System Staff College (UNSSC) with the Data-Pop Alliance launched a platform offering online courses on big data in November 2017, and will conduct face-to-face trainings in 2018. The UN Statistics Division with the GIS software company Esri have set up a data hub enabling countries to use mapping software to monitor progress on the SDGs.

The Data-Pop Alliance is a coalition of research and development actors created by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, MIT Media Lab, and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) to promote the use of big data for sustainable development through research, capacity building, and community engagement. UNSSC and the Data-Pop Alliance are seeking to promote data literacy within the UN and other development practitioners. Their learning platform, the ‘Big Data & Sustainable Development Open Learning Hub,’ offers a series of eight consecutive modules over 11 months. The online modules became available in November 2017 and will run until mid-September 2018. The first module covered issues of governance, transparency and politics related to the use of big data, and subsequent modules will address: climate change; citizen-generated and mobile phone data; gender equity; public health; emergency response; data collection, gaps and opportunities; and data storytelling and visualization. The program can be accessed by anyone who creates a profile on the learning hub.

UNSSC and the Data-Pop Alliance are also offering in-person training on ‘Leveraging Big Data for Sustainable Development.’ The training is conducted over three to four days, and is offered in French and English at various locations around the world. A French-language programme will take place in Dakar, Senegal, from 6-8 March 2018, and an English-language programme in Bangkok, Thailand, from 27-29 March 2018. The training programme is meant to strengthen the skills of UN staff and development practitioners in selecting, creating, using and interpreting data in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Hewlett Foundation is supporting fellowships to cover the costs of the course to professionals from public sector institutions, civil society and academia.

On 30 November 2017, the Fifth High Level Forum on UN Global Geospatial Information Management endorsed the concept of a “federated system” of open SDG Data Hubs. The federated system facilitates the role of national statistical offices (NSOs) in managing statistical and geospatial data through an open data platform with software for GIS and data analytics, as well as through the use of web-based tools for communication and user engagement. It seeks to strengthen national and global statistical systems in managing and sharing data and good practices in implementing the SDGs, improving data interoperability, and enhancing relationships between national and global data. The concept has been implemented through initial research conducted by the UN Statistics Division (UNStats) and Esri, which have set up a data hub enabling countries to use mapping software to collect, analyze and share data for monitoring progress on the SDGs.

Also on big data, Emmanuel Letouzé and David Sangokoya of the Data-Pop Alliance have proposed a 12-point plan addressing privacy issues in big data. In a paper titled, ‘How to Use Big Data,’ developed in cooperation with the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications, the authors recommend that collected data be encrypted and stored in distributed data repositories, where it can only be accessed for legitimate purposes. They call for directing big data projects and resources toward solving shared problems, and for communicating results of projects through data visualizations.