Putting Big Data to Work for the Global Good


Some claim that Big Data is about nothing more than delivering targeted ads to online consumers, a notion I’ve refuted in the past. The truth is Big Data has numerous applications, many of them commercial, but others of the more humanitarian variety.

Consider Global Pulse, an internal team  housed in the U.N.’s Secretary-General’s office. The organization’s mission is to leverage the enormous amount of data people create everyday via mobile devices and social networks to provide policymakers real-time analytics and insights in order to respond faster to global calamities.

As the organization puts it:

Wherever people are using mobile phones or accessing digital services, they are leaving trails behind in the data. Data gathered from cell phones, online behavior, and Twitter, for example, provides information that is updated daily, hourly and by the minute. With the global explosion of mobile phone-based services, communities all around the world are generating this real-time data in ever-increasing volumes. These digital trails are more immediate and can give a fuller picture of the changes, stressors, and shifts in the daily living of a community, especially when compared with traditional indicators such as annual averages of wages, or food and gas prices. This is especially crucial during times of global shocks, when the resilience of families and their hard-won development gains are tested.

Recently, Global Pulse teamed up with a number of private sector organizations, including The SAS Institute and Crimson Hexagon, to determine how best to apply new and developing Big Data technologies to support its global development and crisis response efforts.

The initiative is just six months old, but it’s already off to a promising start, according to Global Pulse. Among the projects underway are:

  • A real-time pricing index to monitor and predict weeks in advance when bread prices are likely to rise, “allowing policy makers to better prepare for the negative effect on consumers.”


  • Social media analytics to predict swings in the unemployment rate and to determine how families are coping.








  • A mobile phone-based survey of over 2 billion people “demonstrating how household-level information can be gathered rapidly and at unprecedented scale” to gain a global well-being “snapshot.”


Projects like these are just the tip of the iceberg. What makes the Big Data Explosion so exciting are the possibilities. New and developing technologies and services like Hadoop, real-time analytic databases and predictive analytics tools have the potential not to just remake the way we do business, but to improve the way we take care of one another and the planet.