Big Data for Global Development

An analysis of the opportunities, initiatives and risks of using big data for global development.

von Patrick Tammer, January 3, 2018

"In God we trust; all others must bring data." W. Edwards Deming

The Post-2015 Agenda

Even as the success and effectiveness of the 5 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is still being debated, the next Agenda is already ready to take over. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with their 169 targets, aim to transform our world to the better by 2030. 

This increased comprehensiveness results largely from the attempt to give more stakeholders a voice in this new agenda. One of the biggest achievements of the SDGs was the bottom up approach used during the programming phase, well-illustrated by the extensive consultation process with many stakeholders from different sectors.

The second tremendous improvement, on which I want to focus in the following, is the technological progress that makes it possible to comprehensively measure development indicators at a large scale and in real or frequent time. This “Data revolution for development” creates a new bridge between formerly unconnected sectors, the high-tech data-driven world and development work.

Big Data for Better Development

We all live in a data-driven world, even though we do not always fully realize it, as Jeffrey Sachs stated in his recent article The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development. Data affects every dimension of society. In the private sector, new business models are completely based on data and the recent episode of Partially Derivate shows how data has become a game-changer in Western politics. But in low-income countries too, the collection and interpretation of data has risen significantly and thus become essential for development work. Increased usage of electronic devices leads to a tremendous explosion of data footage by users, often referred as “big data”. This data will not only allow us to better learn which measures and strategies for development are effective and efficient, but will also allow more stakeholder participation. One pioneering project in this regard was My World 2015 campaign, a global survey collecting input for the programming process of the Sustainable Development Goals by gathering responses from over 80 million people.

Big “Data for Development“ Players

It was not only the approval of the SDGs that triggered numerous alliances, projects and players emerging in this area. Many actors have been working hard for years, but it seems the SDGs’ recognition of the importance of data for global development created a boom that has hopefully only started. The following examples of new players are thus not exhaustive but give a good impression of the field’s growth:

  • The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data is probably the most comprehensive alliance boosting the “data for development” revolution by supporting data-driven decision-making. It is the result of the report A world that counts by the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (IEAG). The partnership is a multi-stakeholder group consisting of governments, civil society, private sector, international organizations, academic, statistical and data communities and networks who represent all sectors of society.
  • Another partnership worth checking out is the Data Pop Alliance, a global coalition on big data and development created by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, MIT Media Lab, and Overseas Development Institute that brings together researchers, experts, practitioners, and activists to promote a people-centered big data revolution. Central to the alliance is the concept of data literacy, meaning the empowerment of people to handle and interpret data in order to navigate in a data driven world.
  • Next to partnership, data Innovation Labs are another source of progress. Global Pulse is the flagship innovation initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General on big data. Its vision is a future in which big data is harnessed safely and responsibly as a public good. Three Innovation Labs in Jakarta, Kampala and New York in collaboration with UN agencies, governments, academia and private sector partners have the objective to discover new ways to collect and interpret data to better manage development work.
  • But of course, the private sector and civil society sector are contributing greatly aswell. The UK based charity Nesta offers a broad portfolio of innovative solutions for organizations and governments. Among their projects is the Open Data Challenge Series, a series of seven challenge prizes to generate innovative and sustainable open data solutions to social challenges. And BrightFront Group, a consultancy specializing in the intersection of international development and technology, is just one private sector example showing that the field can even be attractive to businesses too.

This evolving „data for development“-ecosystem offers broad opportunities for change agents who want to contribute to global development. It’s a great opportunity for techies and data scientists to have an impact on social progress. And there are way more interesting employers out there than the few mentioned above.

Big Risks of Big Data

Having said that, one should keep in mind the threats that go along with this new fascinating development. The more data becomes essential for decision making, the more questions about data security and privacy are coming up; development work is no exception. Especially if we use data of people who might lack sufficient education or the resources to stand up for their interests, we have to ensure even more that they are the owners of their data.

In addition, the data-driven world still has white spots. Many people, especially the most vulnerable, don’t have access to the internet and digital devices. We have to make sure not to neglect their voices, since they are often the primary recipients of development work. Therefore, it needs a mix of methods to collect data, both digital and offline sources.

Last but not least, I want to stress the role of private corporations. In a world where digital data is mostly generated through devices produced and sold by private companies, a data monopoly of big private corporations can easily emerge. The tremendous power that goes along with the possession of big data and the tools to analyze them cannot be overestimated. For these reasons, it is even more important to advocate for the responsible use of data in all dimensions and form a counterweight to mere business interests. Only if enough people do so, we will be able to manage the risks and leverage the opportunities of the data revolution.

About the Author

Patrick Tammer is a 24 years old Master’s student in Public Policy and Management, currently working with the United Nations Development Group in New York. Prior to his Master’s degree, he studied Political Science and Economics in Berlin and Paris and focused on Political Economy and European Integration. Through several opportunities, he was able to gain professional experience in the public sector as well as in the private sector. He supports The Changer because he is convinced that our global society requires that we show more young talented people the attractiveness of a future in the social or civil society sector. A successful career and working in this field is no contradiction at all.

Originally published November 21, 2015