Responsible use of artificial intelligence and robotics was highlighted at the World Data Forum as a tool to overcome data gaps and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Gloria Pallares

Big data sits at the table of sustainable development

Digital advances for a data revolution

“In Buenos Aires, Google data suggests that rooftop solar potential is equal to about 946,000 tons of avoided emissions a year, which is the equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road,” said United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed at the second UN World Data Forum.

The data Mohammed refers to – big data – is the huge amount of data collected passively as people interact with the digital world. Social media posts, cell phone use and credit card payments all generate big data, as does satellite imagery capturing geospatial information.

Underpinning the Forum, which brought together 2,000 data experts from more than 100 countries from 22–24 October in Dubai, was the idea that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will take more and better data to inform policies, monitor progress and hold decision-makers accountable to realities.

As Mohammed’s example from Google illustrates, big data and new data sources – artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotic and drone technologies among them – hold enormous potential to improve development and the environment. For instance, better data and forecasting can reduce losses caused by natural disasters, which amounted to USD 330 billion globally in 2017.

In a bid to better harness this rapidly changing new sector, governments, business, academia, international organizations and civil society groups discussed the data challenges of the 2030 Agenda and presented innovative new data sources – and ways to analyze and use them – to shape a revolution that brings quality data to all.


Artificial intelligence, which runs on big data, refers to computer systems that allow machines to learn from experience and perform human-like tasks such as speech recognition and prediction of future trends.

“One day’s worth of global climate and meteorological data is equivalent to 300 kilometers of CDs stacked one on top of the other,” said United Arab Emirates head of artificial intelligence Omar Sultan Al Olama, who leads the first ministry of its kind in the world. “If we don’t put in place systems to process and analyze this data, we are missing an opportunity to advance global goals through technology.”

This is precisely the mission of UN Global Pulse, which works to accelerate the responsible use of big data, artificial intelligence and emerging technologies for sustainable development and humanitarian action.

One of its initiatives is Haze Gazer, a web-based crisis analysis tool that helps authorities manage the impact of fire and haze events. In recent years, such events have had massive health and landscape consequences in Southeast Asian countries where burning is used for land-clearing on increasingly dry landscapes.

The head of Pulse Lab Jakarta Derval Usher explained that the platform provides real-time insights on the locations and strength of fire and haze hotspots, and the locations of the most vulnerable population groups. In addition, it tracks the response of affected populations, including movement patterns and behavioral changes, as well as actions taken by authorities.

“The Haze Gazer is now part of the president’s ‘situation room’ in Indonesia,” Usher said. “It took us several years to develop the tool, but we now have a solution that can be replicated and brought to scale.”

Another example of how new data sources can be used is the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World, a collaborative endeavor of some 300 organizations that allows users to plunge into the depths of the oceans, explore ecological land types and better understand demography, among other issues.

“This is the largest collection of evolving, ready-to-use global geographic information ever assembled,” said Clint Brown, director of product engineering at Esri, the software company that curates the data feeding the map. The possibilities of combining this growing stock information with one’s own content can result in more comprehensive, creative and accurate ways of collecting, presenting and sharing information on a global scale.

According to the UN Statistics Division, 44 percent of countries lack comprehensive data on birth and death registration, and 77 developing countries lack data on poverty. Gloria Pallares


Satellite imagery not only provides geospatial data, but it can also use it to help fill data gaps that in turn advance social equity. As shown through the work of collaborative platform Data2X, improving the quality, availability and use of data relevant to women and girls is a crucial step to overcoming challenges related to gender.

Since 2014, Data2X has pioneered research on the use of big data as a means of shedding light on the world’s population of women, seeking to gather information on maternal mortality, women migrant worker conditions, the impact of conflict on women and numerous other issues where lack of data is hampering social progress and livelihoods.

One of the pilot research projects, in partnership with Flowminder Foundation, used satellite imagery to find correlations between geospatial elements – such as elevation and distance to roads – and social and health outcomes for women, including literacy, child stunting rates and access to contraception. Mapping these phenomena can inform policies to address gender inequality in places where it is most present.

“Gender data is not a niche data topic, but it is at the heart of the data issue,” said Data2X executive director Emily Courey Pryor. “Without data from all, we cannot make the best decisions for all. And without data equality, there cannot be gender equality.”

The Forum, whose next edition will take place in Bern, Switzerland in 2020, also highlighted the importance of responsible use of new technologies to help fill the data needs of the 2030 Agenda. After all, concluded UN Global Pulse director Robert Kirkpatrick, “the ethical problems posed by the misuse of data are just as big as those posed by its missed use.”


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