When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked for up-to-date data on how the crisis was affecting the world’s poorest citizens. He needed to understand their needs quicker, so the UN and its partner agencies could respond quicker with help and with timely policy recommendations. But the UN’s systems for gathering and storing data were backward looking–usually lagging reality by two years or more.
Now comes Global Pulse, an initiative aimed at harvesting data and innovation on behalf of the disadvantaged. Its organizers are looking for partners in government, academia and the private sector to help them develop super-effective tools for data gathering and analysis.
There are three elements of the iniative:
Data Research: They’re developing techniques for combining new types of real-time data with traditional development metrics to detect early effects of global events. In connection with this effort, they’re calling for a new way of thinking about data–called data philanthropy–where governments and private companies would share their data with the UN through the establishment of a data commons.
Collaboration platform: They’re creating a technology platform, largely from open source technologies, to house tools for sharing hypotheses and integrating, analyzing and visualizing data. One of the tools they’re working on is HunchWorks, which will allow development experts to create hypotheses about events, link them to evidence and share them through social networks of trusted colleagues–who may bring additional evidence to support or refute a theory..
Pulse Labs: They’re setting up a network of innovation centers—called Pulse Labs–that harness the data research and collaboration platform to do real-time impact monitoring, analysis and collaborative decision-making at the country level. The first Pulse Lab has been set up in New York City. Additional labs are scheduled to open in Kampala, Uganda, and Jakarta, Indonesia, next year.
The staff plans on combing Twitter, Facebook and other social networking services to spot trends early. “The goal is to find signals in digital exhaust as people deal with economic stress,” says Eva Kaplan, a program specialist at Global Pulse.
It’s hard to imagine a better use that data could be put to.