Engaging private sector within the UN framework: What are the challenges?

The second "ad hoc" meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Big Data and Digital Ecosystem for the Planet discusses informal participation and how it's improving the use of technology in the system. Photo by: Evan Schneider / U.N.

CANBERRA — The three days of discussion, debate, and strategizing as part of the United Nations Working Group on Big Data and Digital Ecosystem for the Planet was described by participants as “chaotic,” as the agenda was thrown out to prioritize new areas of discussion.

The working group hosted its second meeting in Canberra on Nov. 6-8 as part of GEO Week, bringing together government, multilateral, not-for-profit, research, and private sector organizations to understand the gaps in environmental data and how big data, artificial intelligence, and open source solutions could be leveraged to fill those gaps.

Managed by the United Nations Environment Programme as part of its Science-Policy-Business Forum, the working group aims to assist UNEP with its mandate to develop a long-term strategy for the collection, storing, sharing, access, and use of global environmental data using the latest technologies. Its objectives include harnessing the ongoing data and technology revolution, and catalyzing the deployment of technologies, and financing innovative business models to achieve their data goals.

But despite the willingness for the group to step up, head of the U.N. Science-Policy-Business Forum Shereen Zorba needed to bring down some of the excitement at the conclusion of the three days. The first two working groups, she said, had been ad hoc to determine the level of interest from external groups with two more similar meetings planned. As the interest was successfully identified, the group needed to move to a more formalized process within the U.N. system.

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“If you want member states to take you seriously, you need to build credibility,” she said. And that meant ensuring the group operated within the financial and accountability requirements of the U.N. to build the support it needed to deliver sustainable and widely used solutions.

The barriers between the UN system and the private sector

For members of the working group, there was a lack of understanding of the U.N. system that created barriers for their recommendations.

Four areas of work were identified by participants as priorities for the working group — securing and sustaining finance, accelerating impact, understanding and consolidating programs and resourcing, and developing rapid type prototype models. The ideas for targeting these objectives would potentially create “more red tape” within the U.N. system, Zorba suggested, that “already had enough red tape.” And delivering clear and concise recommendations that were tied to the objectives of the U.N. also posed a challenge.

The need to keep the momentum going to deliver action and outcomes was seen by participants of the working group as a priority. But as it moved into a formalized structure within the U.N. system, Zorba explained that not all participants would have an official role in the group.

Still, there were other ways they could influence and deliver support for the UNEP’s big data and digital ecosystem work.

Dr. Gilberto Câmara, secretariat director of Group on Earth Observations, said organizations such as GEO played an important role in giving UNEP the time it needed to work within the required structures — and enable member countries to create links to the private sector to test and trial solutions.

“Before people make a decision on technology, they have to use it,” Câmara said.

Through GEO’s engagement with the private sector, it was enabling members access to a range of tools and services such as Google Earth Engine that could help them make informed decisions on how new products and services could support their objectives — including in the area of big data.

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Partnerships with Google and Amazon were announced at GEO Week and Câmara expected that this would lead to cascading offers of partnerships from other organizations such as Huawei who would “want to come to the party.”

“It doesn’t mean endorsement,” he said. “But we know these opportunities need to be provided so countries can make informed decisions.”

Importantly this engagement, Câmara said, helped countries understand and plan how they could move beyond goodwill into action on important environmental decisions that would help deliver on the SDGs.

Moving the work forward

Concluding the working group meeting, Zorba said that the momentum had been established to move forward in developing a set of actions — and it would be working in collaboration with GEO to put forward nominations for an official working group.

But she also said that the ad hoc meetings would continue online and in-person as this was faster at bringing partnerships together — which was critical to the success of the work.

“The system does work,” Zorba said. “It just takes a little time to get there.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.