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UN unveils initial findings on uses of real-time data for development work

Global Pulse's research results visuals on the iPad
Global Pulse's research results visuals on the iPad

UN unveils initial findings on uses of real-time data for development work

Valuable time may be saved and corrective action can be taken sooner if real-time data and new technologies are used to tackle development issues such as unemployment and food security, the United Nations said today as it unveiled the initial findings of research in this area.

The findings are from a series of research projects carried out by the UN Global Pulse initiative in partnership with leading data-research institutions Crimson Hexagon, Jana, PriceStats, SAS, and a consortium of French centres led by the Complex Systems Institute of Paris Ile-de-France & IFRIS.

Global Pulse functions as an innovation laboratory, bringing together expertise from UN agencies, governments, academia, and the private sector to research, develop, test and share tools and approaches for harnessing real-time data for more effective and efficient policy action.

Miguel Luengo-Oroz, a data scientist at Global Pulse, said it is essential for the UN to collaborate with partners from the private sector and academia at the cutting edge of new data science and real-time analytics.

“Multidisciplinary collaborative projects are a fantastic approach for adapting new tools and methods for global development. These preliminary findings represent just the beginning of what new real-time data sources can tell us about human well-being.”

Analysis of social media and other sources of “big data” represent an untapped opportunity to improve targeting of policies and programmes to help communities in need, according to a news release issued by Global Pulse.

“The results from the initial series of projects have underlined several promising approaches for real-time monitoring of unemployment and food security,” it stated.

Among the projects was Real-Time E-Pricing of Bread, a collaboration with PriceStats that entailed the construction of a daily bread price index for six Latin American countries.

The findings illustrate how online retail prices reveal offline street price changes weeks before official sales numbers were able to reflect the inflation, potentially allowing policy-makers to better prepare for the negative effect on consumers.

In another project, Unemployment through the Lens of Social Media, online conversations on blogs and forums about bleak job prospects and job satisfaction were occurring months in advance of actual job losses, forecasting the rise of unemployment in the United States and Ireland and revealing the strategies that the unemployed are pursuing to overcome their new economic situation.

In collaboration with SAS, the sentiment analysis revealed that the increases in the volume of on-line employment-related conversations in Ireland, which were characterized by “confusion,” show up three months before increases in unemployment, while in the US conversations about the loss of housing increased two months after spikes in unemployment figures.

Tracking the Food Crisis via Online News, a multi-partner project with the Complex Systems Institute of Paris Ile-de-France & IFRIS, analyzed thousands of news items related to food security issues in the French-language media.

The analysis shows that as the 2008 global economic crisis unfolded, news coverage shifted from a focus on humanitarian issues to food price volatility, whereas in 2011, the news focus has shifted to social unrest.

The findings were presented during an informal briefing in New York. The presentation followed a larger Global Pulse briefing to the General Assembly last month, at which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for greater use of the latest real-time data tools and new technologies to facilitate development and anticipate crises before their impacts become sources of human suffering.

“Too often, by the time we have hard evidence of what is happening at the household level, the harm has already been done,” noted the Secretary-General, whose office manages the initiative.

“The idea behind this initiative is simple – once we know what signals to listen for, we will be able to ‘take the pulse’ of vulnerable communities.”