NEW YORK – Every day, human beings generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of interactive data. By using our phones, our computers, and our GPS devices, we are constantly creating floods of information that travel around the world. As cell phones become increasingly ubiquitous, even those in the developing world are joining the information network. From financial records to social media, online and mobile sharing is drawing whole populations into virtual public space. The question is, what happens to all this big data?
Private actors have actually been analyzing data for years. In the international development space, however, experts have just begun realizing its great power. In May, 2013, the U.N., working with universities and mobile carriers across the world, established what some consider the world’s first true “data commons”—an aggregation of data analysis by more than 150 organizations on mobile phone patterns in Africa. Aid organizations have already begun using data mining and analysis to track and even predict epidemics, droughts, refugee movement, agricultural crises, market failures – and the list goes on and on.
Global Pulse, a U.N. agency that studies new approaches to harnessing big data, has already made great strides in making data analysis more accessible to the public, private, academic, and development sectors. Its director, Robert Kirkpatrick, argues that the study of “data ecosystems” has two primary benefits: it reduces the delay between the awareness of trends and responses to them and increases knowledge about on-the-ground responses to those trends. Understanding the data can help governments, businesses, and NGOs improve their understanding of service needs and their ability to predict and supply.
The path to effective aid based on data analysis, however, is riddled with obstacles. Privacy, for instance, is one of the chief concerns over massive data collection. How will the privacy of individuals be protected? How will service providers keep their users’ trust? Of course, most data exists in private space, owned by businesses and corporations. What incentive do they have to share that data?
Despite these difficulties, many organizations are coming up with innovative solutions. Usahidi, a data-mapping NGO in Kenya, is leveraging the power of mobile phones by crowdsourcing information from millions of individuals. Based on voluntary individual participation in applications like Crowdmap and SwiftRiver, the organization is sharing real-time data about disasters, elections, and so on.
In the private sector, many companies are beginning to recognize the advantage of sharing data to improve policy and, thus, economic stability. The company Nike, for example, has pioneered a corporate data sharing program that allows governments and aid organizations access to information about their operations among vulnerable populations.
From all perspectives, the future of big data in development looks very promising.
– John Mahon