The use of data represents one of the greater technological progresses of the last years. A well-targeted application can have an important impact in terms of development.

Author: Mélanie Romat


Over the last years, increasing attention has been paid to the Big Data “phenomenon”. Justly so, since the practices developed in this area have made possible important applications in very different sectors, in short time.

Big Data can be defined as the storage of big quantities of data with the aim to find, thanks to their study, patterns repeating themselves in order to establish predictive models. All the activities resulting from the gathering, reading, analysis, treatment of these data belong to the sector of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Over the past few years, production and storage capacity of data has been growing with the exponential use of Internet and mobile devices. Thus, since the eighties the data storage capacity doubles every forty months. Nowadays we produce 2.500 terabytes a day (1 terabyte corresponds to more than 1 trillion of bytes) and 90% of data available now has been generated during the last two years. The data produced come from different sources; among them we can mention sensors, social networks, financial transactions, mobiles’ geolocation…

In this context, data represent an authentic gold mine for the private sector, since they can give access to highly valuable information regarding users’ behaviors and market trends.

But data can also be very useful for the public sector since their use can be oriented to problems’ resolution and to the reach of development goals.

In this optic, the United Nations have created in 2009 the initiative Global Pulse, with the aim to impulse innovations in the Big Data sector in order to help authorities understanding in real time how the crisis we experience can affect the most vulnerable populations. Global Pulse mainly relies on a network of innovation laboratories located in different regions of the world, whose research pretends to give support to international development, protect the most vulnerable populations and improve our capacities to adapt ourselves to global changes. With this perspective, Global Pulse has boosted and developed several projects in order to monitor crisis situations and find solutions.

Global Pulse has boosted and developed several projects in order to monitor crisis situations and find solutions.

One of them is a project implemented in Mexico, upon initiative of the organization Fundar, which has developed an online database of the grants allocated by the government in the agriculture sector. Thanks to the analysis of these data, it has been possible to identify an important problem: the bad repartition of subsidies, whose 50% ended in hands of a 10% of the beneficiaries. With the detection of this problem, the government could adjust its procedures, leading to a better distribution of funds.

Another example, the Project Rapid FTR (Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification) driven in collaboration with UNICEF. It is an open source mobile application enabling the collection of data about children separated from their family due to a crisis situation or natural disaster. The application has a high level of privacy (similar to the level used by banks) and through a fast availability of the information, allows conducting processes of family reunification in short time (few hours instead of an average of six weeks usually).

Third interesting case to illustrate the use of data for development: a project performed in Uganda, based on the measurement of roofs to get information on the poverty level of the population. Concretely, thanks to the analysis of satellite pictures we can identify the kind of roofs and materials used for the housing and connect them to the standard of living of the population. Thatched roofs suppose more diseases possibilities and are high maintenance while other materials such as metal or tiled roofs are much safer, but their high price doesn’t allow all the families to afford them. Thus, the study of use of roofs’ typologies allows obtaining data about the average incomes of families and the level of poverty of the country. Their collection and analysis enables the accomplishment of studies, statistics and surveys to get more detailed conclusions on the country’s situation and to establish development goals.

These three examples shed lights on the utility of data and the numerous uses which might be made of them to reach a better development, and to reduce the impact of crisis situations and natural disasters.

This field is in its early stage yet and there is still a lot to do, the important point is that public sector recognizes it and takes it into account when time comes to define strategies and make decisions.

For more information, please consult the reports published by Global Pulse (in English):

Big Data for Development

A world that counts


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