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A series of initiatives from the United Nations to enhance use of big data for driving sustainable development

Late last year, the United Nations introduced several initiatives to strengthen countries’ use of big data for sustainable development, including a data literacy platform, a proposal for a 12-point plan on privacy and governance issues and a mapping software for monitoring progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

In January 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by world leaders in September 2015, officially came into force.  Over the next fifteen years, with these new Goals that universally apply to all, countries are expected to mobilise efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.

Partnership with Data-Pop Alliance to promote data literacy

The UN System Staff College (UNSSC), the primary provider of inter-agency training and learning for staff of the United Nations system, together with the Data-Pop Alliance, launched a platform offering online courses on big data in November 2017, and will conduct face-to-face trainings in 2018.

The Data-Pop Alliance is a global coalition created by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, MIT Media Lab, and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) to promote the use of big data for sustainable development through research, capacity building, and community engagement.

Through the new learning platform, called the ‘Big Data & Sustainable Development Open Learning Hub,’ UNSSC and the Data-Pop Alliance are seeking to promote data literacy within the UN and other development practitioners. A series of eight consecutive modules are being offered over a period of 11 months. The online modules became available in November 2017 and will run until mid-September 2018.

The first module covered issues of governance, transparency and politics related to the use of big data, and subsequent modules will address: climate change; citizen-generated and mobile phone data; gender equity; public health; emergency response; data collection, gaps and opportunities; and data storytelling and visualization. The programme can be accessed by anyone who creates a profile on the learning hub.

UNSSC and the Data-Pop Alliance are also offering in-person training on ‘Leveraging Big Data for Sustainable Development.’ The training will be conducted over three to four days, and is offered in French and English at various locations around the world.

A French-language programme is scheduled to take place in Dakar, Senegal, from 6-8 March 2018, and an English-language programme in Bangkok, Thailand, from 27-29 March 2018. The training programme is meant to strengthen the skills of UN staff and development practitioners in selecting, creating, using and interpreting data in support of the Sustainable Development Agenda. The Hewlett Foundation is supporting fellowships to cover the costs of the course to professionals from public sector institutions, civil society and academia.

Proposed 12-point roadmap for addressing privacy issues

Emmanuel Letouzé and David Sangokoya of the Data-Pop Alliance have proposed a 12-point roadmap addressing privacy issues in big data. In a paper titled, ‘How to Use Big Data,’ (roadmap available on page 19 of report) developed in cooperation with the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications, the authors recommend Putting ‘privacy by design’ into action. The paper suggests four categories of privacy engineering solutions and design strategies for big data use:

Distributed Data Repositories (Model in which different kinds of data are stored in separate repositories and tools are deployed from an external or remote human query that can send queries to the correct data repository

Move the Algorithm to the Data (Distributed, Privacy-Maximising Algorithms): Model in which each data repository enables remote queries to send their query statements or algorithms to the repository.

Data Always in Encrypted State (at Rest and in Computation): Model in which data is always in an encrypted state and new cryptographic algorithms and approaches allow operations to be carried out without need to decrypt first

Encode Data Usage Agreements in Legal Trust Networks: Trust network model for large scale data sharing in an ecosystem, combining computer network tracking user permissions for each piece of data within a specific legal framework.

The authors recommend that all stakeholders—including companies, privacy experts, policymakers, data scientists, data users, private sector and ethicists—should co-create infrastructure and spaces for discussion, safe experimentation and transparent findings.

They go on to say that new data public private partnerships must make transparent for all data stakeholders where and how the data is shared and what kinds of public problems will be solved through these data innovations in order to build public trust.

Geospatial measurement of progress on SDGs

The UN Statistics Division with the GIS software company Esri have set up a data hub enabling countries to use mapping software to measure, monitor, and report progress on the SDGs. This new hub, called the Federated System for the SDGs, is based on Esri's ArcGIS platform and will use location intelligence to make it easier for countries to collect, analyse, and share the data required to monitor progress.

This was first introduced as a research project and six countries participated in this invitation-only phase, Ireland, Mexico, the Philippines, Qatar, South Africa, and Senegal. These countries helped define the requirements and deployment of a web mapping and data management platform that would eventually become the hub.

Federated system of open SDG Data Hubs

On 30 November 2017, the Fifth High Level Forum on UN Global Geospatial Information Management endorsed the concept of a “federated system” of open SDG Data Hubs.

Source: Research Exercise to Establish A Federated Information System for the SDGs Overview and Discussion

The federated system aims to enhance the role of national statistical offices (NSOs) in managing statistical and geospatial data through an open data platform with software for GIS (geospatial information system) and data analytics, as well as through the use of web-based tools for communication and user engagement.

The system also seeks to improve data interoperability from a wide range of sources through the National SDG Data Hubs and enable the overlaying of multiple national and global data sets, to understand data flows, and address inconsistencies.

The concept has been implemented through initial research conducted by the UN Statistics Division (UNStats) and Esri, which came together to set up the previously mentioned data hub.

Featured image: Javier Carbajal/ CC BY-SA 3.0

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