Solutions to the big data challenge at the UN World Data Forum

View of the dais during the afternoon plenary “Improving Migration Statistics – the way forward.” Photo by: IISD

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Big data offers promises to better support and facilitate the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. And Robert Kirkpatrick, the director of United Nations Global Pulse, believes big data is what governments will need to achieve the SDGs.

Yet the information collected on a daily basis from millions, through wearable fitness monitors, mobile phones, or social media giants, is often taken without public knowledge and comes with a raft of complications. Speaking at the session “Big Data for Sustainable Development: What does it take to get to the next level?” at the U.N. World Data Forum, Kirkpatrick said that data misuse, and its possibility, is harming progress on big data. He acknowledged that the “data revolution had been delayed,” with many big data projects never moving beyond the pilot stage.

While the private sector is a natural source to tap into, the public sector is often unwilling to rely on it for a continual stream of data. And the lack of regulations and agreements in place means that the private sector is uncomfortable providing access to information on their customers.

Speakers in the session pointed to a number of challenges.

Martin Mubangizi, a data science officer with Pulse Lab Kampala, said that there needed to be greater education on the benefits big data could bring.

Heather Savory, director general for data capability with the United Kingdom Office for National Statistics, said that big data projects can be repetitive, and thus less than efficient.

“This conference is full of people doing good work, but it is very similar,” she said, adding that there was need for greater cooperation and sharing of innovation to achieve public benefit.

Jeanine Vos, head of the GSMA SDG Accelerator, said that engagement between public and private sector on big data sharing needs to be driven by government and citizen needs and demands.

“It is not yet adopted and used by many governments,” Vos said. As a result, there are no examples of the impact big data could achieve in delivering policy outcomes.

A possible big data solution

The need to get to the next level in big data has been a common discussion at the U.N. World Data Forum, but Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer of the Governance Laboratory offered practical examples of bridging the gap by encouraging the creation of data stewards as a profession within the private sector.

“The whole idea is that to make public-private partnerships work, you need more than a data and technical infrastructure,” Verhulst explained to Devex. “You need human infrastructure. You need people on the corporate side but you also need someone to own the process and start thinking strategically about what is the value, and how we can deliver it.”

Speaking at a session on stewardship, Verhulst discussed the value and challenges of private sector data and how human infrastructure — such as the creation of data stewards as a profession — could help in opening it up.

“There was a large consensus that we really need to professionalize the supply side and we really need to establish functions within corporations that deal with responding to solicitation [of data], but also express the objectives and goals that their organization want to help with — such as climate change or economic inequality,” Verhulst said. “Then you can establish those relationships around your data with procedures and transparency around how they are opening data.”

Private sector agencies DigitalGlobe, the Cloudera Foundation, and Streetlight Data all have data steward functions operating within their organization. And Omar Seidu, a social statistician with the Ghana Statistical Services, provided the perspective from a public sector organization working to put this relationship into practice.

Participants acknowledged the difficulties of data sharing due to privacy concerns and the private sector needing to show business value in giving away their data. But there was agreement that professionals who could bridge the gap between the sectors would help.

“It’s a market failure that needs to be addressed,” Verhulst said.

While data steward functions exist among within their companies, private sector panelists explained, it is not a single role. The data stewards perform this function on top of other roles.

“The person from DigitalGlobe is actually responsible for sales … to nonprofits at a reduced rate,” Verhulst explained. “The person at Streetlight Data is charged with partnerships. So this data steward function is actually dispersed across the organizations.”

By looking at the common function a data steward needs to perform, it may be possible to identify how to make the role systemic and sustainable — and help bridge the gap in big data.

Verhulst acknowledged it is still early days to establish a mandate for private sector data stewards. Although he sees their role as important to helping deliver upon the SDGs, he said many private sector organizations were still reliant on the public sector to come to them with requests making the process “ad hoc”.

Still, the private sector’s wish for better integration with the public sector on data matters was emphasized throughout the forum, with Telefónica’s Head of Big Data for Social Good Pedro De Alarcón calling for national statistics offices to define the methodology and standards by which the private sector should be collecting data to ensure it is useful and usable.

“People don’t want data, but answers to questions,” he said.

Lisa Cornish attended the U.N. World Data Forum as a Data2X press fellow.

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 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.