Searching Big Data for ‘Digital Smoke Signals

8. August 2013

Date: 08-08-2013
 Source: The New York Times

Makena Walker, deputy director, and Robert Kirkpatrick, director, of the United Nations Global Pulse team are working to improve monitoring in poorer nations for humanitarian aid programs

The office has the look and feel of an Internet start-up. The workers are young, the dress is casual and the computer of choice is an Apple notebook. They inhabit a single open room. The walls have whiteboards for scribbling ideas when inspiration strikes.

But the office in Manhattan is not dedicated to the latest app. It is the base camp of the United Nations Global Pulse team — a tiny unit inside an institution known for its sprawling bureaucracy, not its entrepreneurial hustle. Still, the focus is on harnessing technology in new ways — using data from social networks, blogs, cellphones and online commerce to transform economic development and humanitarian aid in poorer nations.

“We work hard, play hard and tend to stay well-caffeinated,” said Robert Kirkpatrick, who leads the group. “This is an exercise in entrepreneurship.”

The efforts by Global Pulse and a growing collection of scientists at universities, companies and nonprofit groups have been given the label “Big Data for development.” It is a field of great opportunity and challenge. The goal, the scientists involved agree, is to bring real-time monitoring and prediction to development and aid programs. Projects and policies, they say, can move faster, adapt to changing circumstances and be more effective, helping to lift more communities out of poverty and even save lives. Read the rest of this entry »