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CLIMATE ACTION PROGRAMME


24 October 2017

Interview with Robert Kirkpatrick, Director, UN Global Pulse

Climate Action had a talk with Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse, - a Platinum Sponsor of the 8th Sustainable Innovation Forum, about the importance of data in the fight against climate change. 

1.  We keep hearing that if it can’t be measured, it can’t be improved. How has the Data Revolution changed the work of the UN?

What people say and do every day increasingly produces data that can be used in myriad ways. The data revolution --  which encompasses the open data movement, the rise of crowdsourcing, new ICTs for data collection, and the explosion in the availability of big data, together with the emergence of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things -- is already transforming society in ways that we do not yet fully understand. New sources of data, new technologies, and new analytical approaches, if applied responsibly, can allow us to better monitor progress toward the SDGs in a way that is both inclusive and fair. This must involve all relevant stakeholders, including governments, companies that own the data, and the development and humanitarian communities.

At the same time, particularly inside the UN, the data revolution isn’t just about improving measurement. Although big data is already being used by governments to generate official statistics, its greatest value lies in harnessing the power of real-time and predictive analytics to transform decision-making at an operational level. Once anonymized to protect privacy, real-time information on the locations of mobile subscribers can allow a humanitarian agency to see where people displaced by a disaster are gathering, how many they are, and how quickly that number is increasing. This information can be used to dispatch the right volume of relief supplies to the right locations sooner, and save lives.

Everyone sees the potential of big data and AI now when it comes to development and humanitarian applications. At the AI for Good Global Summit this summer, we saw parties on all sides reinforce their commitment to put data to work for the public good. The event also highlighted a number of initiatives that are already working to move from theory to practice. For example, at the beginning of the year, the mobile industry, through the GSMA, announced a new Big Data for Social Good strategy around the SDGs, which we look forward to supporting.

Within the UN system, Global Pulse has been working to harness the power of data innovation for over seven years now, and we are not alone. Organizations like the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO, the UN Development Programme, UNICEF and others are already doing innovative work with big data and AI to support the achievement of the SDGs.

2. What role does UN Global Pulse play in the implementation of the SDGs?

Governments are accountable to their citizens for delivering on the SDGs; the UN plays multiple roles in supporting this effort. Global Pulse is a system-wide innovation initiative of the UN. We are part data innovation service, part policy think-tank, and part advocacy platform. Our mission is to accelerate discovery, development and mainstream adoption of applications of big data and AI for sustainable development and humanitarian action. We provide joint innovation as a service through our Pulse Labs in Jakarta (Indonesia), Kampala (Uganda), and New York. We work with and support innovation initiatives at UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, UNHCR, OCHA, WHO, among others.  Through them, we support national institutions around the world to develop a smarter, more proactive approach to the implementation of development programmes and disaster response.

Part of what we do at Global Pulse is focused on learning how data science and analytics can contribute to smarter operational decision-making, whether to support the achievement of sustainable development, improve humanitarian action, address climate change, or build peace. We work with companies to gain access to privacy-protected sources of real-time big data, like anonymized financial transactions, GPS data, and social media content, so that this data can be used to develop new applications that help development and humanitarian actors improve outcomes and save lives.

In addition, we work on policy innovation around data privacy and responsible use. One aspect of this involves advocating for stronger privacy protections around big data, which is notoriously difficult to anonymize; existing privacy legislation has not kept pace with innovation in how private sector firms collect and use data, and it is difficult these days to ensure that consent around use of one’s data is truly informed. In our own work with big data, we follow strict guidelines to minimize the risk of harm to individuals and groups, and we are leading much of the work at the UN on development of similar data privacy and data protection instruments for system-wide use.

At the same time, however, we are also pushing for policy reform in ways that create more space for innovation around the use of big data for the public good. Privacy is a human right, but so are food, water, healthcare, education and jobs. The fact that big data and AI aren’t already being widely used to make public services smarter and improve early warning and crisis response means, in effect, that people around the world are paying a huge opportunity cost in terms of preventable harms and lost progress toward the SDGs. This is an ethical issue, a failure in public sector’s responsibility to protect the people it serves. People must certainly be protected from hypothetical harms that could result from misuses of big data, but they must also be protected from harms that continue to occur because of “missed uses.” 

3. How can we use data and innovation to support action on climate change?

Climate change is already altering the world as we know it: we are seeing more frequent and intense climate shocks, as well as effects like sea level rise and shifting patterns of infectious disease.

Getting to Paris required incontrovertible evidence of climate change and the long-term causal role of human activity. But successful mitigation and adaptation will require new types of information on human behaviour that only big data can provide. We need to assess how successfully we are transitioning to sustainability. We need to understand, in aggregate, what products people buy and sell; what they search for; how they move through and between cities; how aware they are of risks; how they are affected by crises; and whether they are becoming more resilient to future climate shocks. Information on what people say and what they do can give us real-time feedback on whether our policies and programmes to respond to climate change are working.

For example, at Global Pulse, we worked on a recent project using financial transaction data provided by Spanish bank BBVA to understand the economic resilience of communities affected by a hurricane. If we can understand how people prepare for disaster, we can inform proactive, targeted distribution of supplies and cash transfers to the most vulnerable populations. If we have real-time information on how communities are recovering, we can make sure we implement the adequate recovery and reconstruction programmes and policies.

4. What is the Data for Climate Action challenge?

The Data for Climate Action (#D4CA) challenge is a call to innovators and researchers to put data to work for effective climate solutions. What’s unique about this challenge is that it provides datasets from nine different companies, data that can be analysed -- together with information from publically available sources -- to reveal new insights and ways to support climate action.

Researchers and teams were given access to these data earlier this year to conduct their projects, following a rigorous selection process. The hope is that the insights they uncover will be further developed and translated into solutions which can then be scaled for even greater impact.

UN Global Pulse is a Platinum sponsor for the upcoming 8th Sustainable Innovation Forum taking place alongside COP23, in Bonn, Germany, 13-14 November. Robert Kirkpatrick, Director, UN Global Pulse and Dave Tang, SVP Corporate Marketing, Western Digital will be interviewed during the event by International Broadcaster Nick Gowing on Data for Climate Action.

To learn more about the event, download our latest agenda and see how to register here

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