BARCELONA — Technology provides some great opportunities for global development, and a promising future. But for the next generation of professionals to succeed, it’s vital they stay up to date with the latest tech, innovations, and tools.
In a recent report produced by Devex in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development and DAI, some 86 percent of survey respondents believe the technology, skills, and approaches development professionals will be using in 10 years’ time will be significantly different to today’s.
In fact, “technology for development” is regarded as the sector that will see the most development progress, but is also cited as the one that will see the biggest changes in skills required, according to the survey.
“As different technologies develop, new possibilities will open up that we may not even be aware of yet. These opportunities will bring new people into the development sector and require those in it to be more agile in adapting technologies to meet development challenges,” said one survey respondent.
While “blockchain,” “artificial intelligence,” and “drones” may be the current buzzwords surrounding tech in global development, geographical information systems, or GIS, and big data are actually the top technologies respondents believe the next generation of development professionals should learn how to utilize.
So, how are these technologies currently being used in development, how might this change in the near future, and what will their impact be in the next 10 years? Devex spoke with experts in the field who are already integrating these technologies into their work to find out.
Geographical Information Systems
The report found GIS is considered the number one most sought-after tech skill for the next generation, with 46 percent of respondents agreeing it was the most important technology area. This includes harnessing GIS software to present project data, analyze the data, and create maps to visualize findings and results in a way that everybody can understand, no matter their technical capabilities.
“I see mapping as the new way of communication, because it’s easier, faster, [and] eye catching,” said Reemi Mohammad, development program specialist at USAID Jordan.
The use of mapping was also flagged by Carrie Stokes, chief geographer and director of USAID’s GeoCenter: “There’s something about seeing things visually on a map that really allows people to see patterns and understand how different factors influence a particular area of interest on the ground,” she said. “GIS technology really allows us to see those relationships.”
One way USAID is already using GIS is by mapping issues of food security with partners around the world and responding accordingly, explained Stokes. Food security requires an understanding of current food supplies on the ground, market prices, and climate and weather conditions. USAID processes this information along with household surveys — often collected and compiled by the World Bank — and maps the results to identify hotspots of vulnerability within a country, said Stokes. Doing so helps USAID “understand where the development need is the greatest,” she said, and from there, it can “compare that to where USAID is already working on the ground.”
Kathryn Sullivan, a former NASA astronaut who until recently was the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tells Devex that geographic information systems give us unprecedented knowledge about our oceans, including helping us understand the challenges facing communities. But to make it useful, she said, we have to make the data more accessible.
Using this information, they can inform their colleagues in-country about the areas that require attention and assistance.
“We live in a dynamic world where things are changing all the time, and so being able to use geographic analysis as part of our program planning, as part of our program implementation, and as part of our monitoring and evaluation, is proving to be very valuable for the work that we do,” explained Stokes.
The World Bank also uses GIS to assist with its programs, training teams on the ground in Azerbaijan to collect project location information using smartphones. Teams record the project location, enter some additional details and take a photograph of the project.
“All that data is sent back to a centralized server and that creates a web mapping application that allows anybody to see what’s going on,” explained Benjamin Stewart, geographer at the World Bank, adding that such processes provide greater detail about projects and enables better monitoring and evaluation.
“I see the use of GIS exploding over the next five to 10 years,” Stokes said, adding that previously, GIS was a skill only acquired by a select few, but because of the advancement in internet, mobile, and communication tools, “access to spatial data is becoming so common that anyone can use it.”
Devex looks at how NGOs are using data-driven mapping technology around the world to support the Sustainable Development Goals.
As a result, she predicts an increasing demand for professionals with strong GIS skills as well as other abilities such as analytical and spatial thinking in the global development sphere.
“The key is being able to understand how to apply it in a way that will be useful for answering important questions,” Stokes said, adding that having professionals with those skill sets available within the sector will result in development work being more effective.
GIS is often used in conjunction with big data. Mapping phone or mobile records can reveal trends or hotspots of development issues.
Internet use — from reading an article, to using social media, emailing, or online shopping — leaves a “footprint” of activities. The footprints of the entire web-using population are collected and stored in enormous datasets, hence the name “big data.”
Many private companies use this information to improve their user experience and ultimately maximize their profits. The German Football Association even collaborated with software corporation SAP to help them win the 2014 World Cup by using big data to analyze speed, distance, positioning, ball possession and more to improve their performance.
From combing phone subscription records to estimate population density and poverty levels, to analyzing tweets to predict a pending food crisis, emerging technology and the availability of "big data" sources offers global development and humanitarian aid organizations new ways to optimize both their effectiveness and reach.
Big data has recently become an unparalleled tool for development initiatives, too. For example, it can be analyzed to inform development trends, crises, and climatic changes that could affect populations.
The United Nations’ Global Pulse initiative comprises a network of labs researching and advocating the use of big data for development worldwide. Pulse Lab Kampala has been using big data — along with GIS — to automate the monitoring of the growth of slums in real time. This was previously done manually by enumerators counting individual structures.
“As a result, the work is much, much faster,” Paula Hidalgo-Sanchis, manager of Pulse Lab Kampala, told Devex, adding that it can also identify trends more accurately, “because of the volume of data that can be analyzed.”
“Big data is changing everything. It’s changing the way we look at the world, the way we understand the world, and the way we act in it.”— Paula Hidalgo-Sanchis, manager of Pulse Lab Kampala
Big data is also much more timely than previous data collection methods.
“Before, you’d have a household survey that tells you the welfare of individuals every five years. Now, you can get that daily, so you can respond to issues in real time,” said Rebecca Furst-Nichols, deputy director of Data2x.
“Big data is changing everything. It’s changing the way we look at the world, the way we understand the world, and the way we act in it,” said Hidalgo-Sanchis. “The beauty is that some of it is happening in development practices, that we [the global development sector] are not [being] left behind.”
Big data is only just beginning to reveal its potential, with use in the development sector emerging within the past decade. Access to digital devices is growing faster than access to clean water, Hidalgo-Sanchis revealed in an online post, and it has grown exponentially across Africa in recent years.
More and more people in developing country contexts are getting connected and creating data based around their daily lives, which can inform development trends. Mobile phone records of spending patterns can provide insights on income levels, for example.
“The concept of data has changed completely, and we’re not going back to the old way of seeing data, we can’t go back,” Hidalgo-Sanchis stressed, adding that big data can be used to impact every one of the Sustainable Development Goals.
It’s important to get the use of data right from the start, however. For Data2x’s Furst-Nichols, that means advocating for data scientists to consider gender disparities in current big data research and analysis, “so that we’re not seeing in 10 years that this big data for development field is really well developed, but we don’t know about what it means for women and girls specifically.”
In order to achieve this, big data scientists are needed within the development sector now.
“I definitely think there are positions within the development agencies in big data and there will be increasingly so as the value proposition becomes more known and more developed,” said Furst-Nichols.
With the demand for data scientists increasing across the board in the private sector and in government, salaries can be an issue in the development sector, Furst-Nichols cautioned.
“The salaries that a big data scientist can command in the private sector are just so much higher,” she said. “And so, you have to really get people behind the mission, in terms of what these groups are actually doing with the data, for people to justify the salary difference.”
To read the full Next Generation Professional report and find out what the future for development workers looks like, click here.