Is #globaldev optimism over big data based more on hype than value?

By Mario Villamor 27 August 2015

Data visualization on display on big screens at the American Red Cross Digital Operations Center. Is big data truly a powerful new tool or an overhyped innovation whose impact is less than expected? Photo by: Geoff Livingston / CC BY-SA

As the global development community prepares to finalize a new set of goals and targets for the next 15 years, big data has become a key part of discussions. The post-2015 agenda has 17 sustainable development goals and 169 associated targets, and big data could be essential to monitoring and measuring progress.

More than just collecting large volumes of data, big data is an umbrella term for an ecosystem that allows for real-time collection, storage and analyses of digital information. The goal is to leverage analyzed data and provide insights that can guide policymakers and decision-makers, and practical information for the larger public.

‘Big data’ for development: What is it, and why you should care

The post-2015 agenda acknowledges the explosion of digital data and innovations that help store and analyze it — but what can we do with all that information? In an exclusive opinion for Devex, Anoush Tatevossian from the U.N. Global Pulse discusses future challenges and opportunities for so-called big data in development work.

Big data has spurred innovations in the way information is collected and translated into practical applications. In development, for instance, big data is being used for e-government solutions, such as e-social services and e-health. Opening up collected data to the public in a way that makes it easy to filter and sort information can help cut corruption and improve the delivery of government services as well. In addition, big data can provide granular weather forecasts that help farmers optimize their planting, harvesting and crop protection decisions.

From the U.N. Global Pulse initiative to the World Bank’s new data visualization tool, major development organizations are clearly seeking ways to better harness big data.

But the future of big data in global development will depend on how development professionals understand and apply this innovation. A recent Devex survey sought to uncover the industry’s perceptions of big data, asking over 500 development professionals from around the world and across a variety of sectors, ranging from energy to education, what they really think about the prospects of big data in development.

Our results show development professionals are broadly optimistic when it comes to big data. Seventy-three percent of respondents are either enthusiastic or interested in using big data in their own work, with 72 percent seeing more opportunities than challenges when they think about its role in global development.

What do development professionals really think about big data? View the full infographic to find out.

“You can answer the questions you want to answer, such as where to put a new family planning clinic,” Leopoldo Villegas, who serves as a senior infectious diseases specialist at U.S.-based technology solutions company ICF International, told Devex in a previous interview.

But while big data is viewed with widespread optimism, it remains one of the less visible innovations in development — only 28 percent of survey respondents have personally seen many examples of it used. This may be due to the fact that many governments and private organizations, owing to security or proprietary concerns, have not made their data publicly available.

Interested in more survey findings? Check out the full infographic.

 What do development professionals really think about the prospects of big data?

Stanley Wood, senior program officer for data, evidence and learning at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has said that while large sums have been invested to collect various types of data, much of the results these efforts yielded were nowhere to be seen. In a previous interview, Wood even told Devex that “one of the biggest points open data can help with is the waste of billions of dollars that have been spent in data collection.”

The inaccessibility of data may perhaps also account for the fact that while 68 percent of respondents believe big data is a powerful new tool, 32 percent think that it’s somewhat overhyped and its impact on development will be less than expected. This is more pronounced in developed regions, as 46 percent of development professionals from those areas believe big data is somewhat overhyped compared with 20 percent in developing regions.

“While big data is not new for [the] private sector, we think that it’s still is in its early days in the public sector,” Adarsh Desai, program manager at the World Bank’s Innovation Labs, told Devex. “We acknowledge that it’s very important to focus on value and not get carried away by the hype.”

Interested in our survey and research practices? Get in touch with our Survey & Advisory Services — the Devex consulting practice that conducts brand surveys and business strategy services that leverage both the Devex network and proprietary development finance data.

About the author

Mario villamor 400x400  2
Mario Villamor

Mario is a senior development analyst at Devex's survey and advisory services team. Prior to joining Devex, Mario was a researcher for the Boston Consulting Group in Boston, Massachusetts, where he supported client engagements in a variety of sectors, including public sector, global health and the social impact space, among others. Before joining BCG, Mario earned his master’s degree in global affairs from New York University.

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