When we think of Big Data, humanitarian aid and international development are probably not what first come to mind. But a United Nations team called Global Pulse is working to connect the dots between data mining and humanitarianism, showing us how we can use Big Data to digitally map the global development ecosystem.
“Big Data for development” works by analyzing data from cell phones, social networking sites, and Internet commerce to locate clues about signs of distress in developing countries. Social networks like Twitter, proponents explain, oftentimes can predict bursts of unemployment, disease, and price hikes months before official statistics become available. By anticipating needs, they add, humanitarian groups can better adapt their programs and quicken their response times.
Currently, the lag time between recognizing a problem and acting on it is a major challenge facing humanitarian groups. “Global Pulse,” The New York Times reports, “is intended as a 21st century answer” to the shortcomings of 20th-century tools. While Global Pulse may see itself as an answer, skeptics aren’t without their own questions about how data-driven development works and who might be affected.
The success of a group like Global Pulse depends largely on the cooperation of others—universities, nonprofits, and even companies that are asked to share data in the name of humanitarian progress. Not surprisingly, many corporations are less than eager to release their data, even if scoured clean of customers’ personally identifying information. But “data philanthropy” is in everyone’s interest, companies included, Global Pulse says, as it fosters healthier economies—which ultimately make for better business.