Big Data

Inaugural UN World Data Forum establishes global Action Plan

Data scientists, diplomats, and business leaders convened in South Africa to share how technology and data can be used to increase education, combat climate change, and stabilize global markets.

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Image: United Nations World Data Forum

The world has a data plan. Last week nearly 1,500 data experts from 100 countries gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the first United Nations World Data Forum. The group, which included top scientists, politicians, and business experts, spent a week presenting key findings on the global impact of technology and developed an Action Plan for sustainable global technological development.

Establishing scientific standards is a priority for the UN. "There can be no Plan B, because there is no Planet B," said former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2014 about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a set of targets agreed upon by all 169 member states designed to reduce the impact of existential threats like climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the economic impact of rapid technological change.

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The World Data Forum was hosted by Statistics South Africa and is a critical component of the SDGs. The goal of the conference was to develop an Action Plan, a global "to-do list" that implores the international community to address "six strategic areas, including innovation and modernization of national statistical systems, dissemination of data on sustainable development, building partnerships and mobilizing resources," said UN spokesperson Pragati Pascale in a statement.

Large data gaps hinder policy makers from making informed decisions, explained Pali Lehohla, South Africa's Statistician-General and head of Statistics South Africa at the conference. "Over 100 countries do not keep accurate birth and death records, and only 41 per cent of countries regularly produce data on violence against women. ... We cannot achieve what we cannot measure."

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Image: UN Global Pulse crisis response data running on an iPad

The conference addressed how big data is used for sustainable development. Scientists, technologists, and politicians presented ideas about how data is used to analyze everything from market resiliency to natural disasters, to the price of bread in Central and South America, to the global influence of social media. UN Global Pulse released a tool called Hazegazer that transforms big data into actionable visualizations used for crisis management, and a portal called Data Republica that makes technology and data accessible in rural Latin America.

Along with terrestrial radio, the smartphone is one of the most influential technologies in developing countries. Mobile data provider Telefónica presented seven big ways mobile technologies have changed the world. Mobile data, according to the company, is being used to combat poverty, increase education, and enhance access to affordable clean energy. "To make big data for social good a real success, it is fundamental to find sustainable business models which allow these data analyses to become recurring projects, not just one off pilots or exploratory academic work," said a company spokesperson. "Taking a data-driven approach to the world's biggest problems is fundamental ... [to] our collective progress."

Twitter and the United Nations announced a data sharing partnership that will provide UN sub-organizations, partners, and some member states access to the social media giant's full API. "Twitter's unique data stream can help us truly take a real-time pulse on priorities and concerns — particularly in regions where social media use is common — to strengthen decision-making," said Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse, in a statement.

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Chris Moody, Twitter's VP of Data Services, explained how social media is an important barometer for decision-makers. "Twitter data provides a live window into the public conversations that communities around the world are having," Moody said at the conference, "and we believe that the increased potential for research and innovation through this partnership will further the UN's efforts to reach the Sustainable Development Goals."

The United Arab Emirates will host the next World Data Form, scheduled for late 2018. In a statement issued after the conference Stefan Schweinfest, Director of the UN Statistics Division said, "this will be a unique opportunity to strengthen data and statistical systems for development not only at the national, but also at the regional and global level."

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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