The seminal United Nations Global Pulse paper last year made the case quite clearly and a sleuth of predictions for 2013 just reiterated the point: big data has an enormous, but yet untapped potential for development (and beyond).
As a Harvard Business Review article put it recently: “data-driven decisions are better decisions” – it is as simple as that. Using big data enables managers to decide on the basis of evidence rather than intuition.
So how can we help turn that potential into reality?
We are big fans of “quick dos” as a way to demystify buzzwords, so we thought that the best way to learn about big data for development would be to actually sink our teeth into it.
And what better place to start than operations to test whether big data can make a difference on the ground? What if we could come up with a set of tool and resources that can be applied to operational processes immediately?
The World Bank finance team initially came up with the idea, and our team at UNDP and the UN Global Pulse gladly joined forces. And we hope that the list won’t end here!
What type of questions could big data help answer to inform the work of operations managers? Here’s what we came up with from an initial brainstorming:
- Can you measure poverty in real time (using alternative techniques made possible by the widespread availability of ‘high-frequency’ data)
- Is it is possible to create a prediction model (or early warning systems) to determine the likelihood of funds being used for purposes intended (thus helping make better decisions BEFORE money leaves the donor and improving our assurance processes)?
- Is it possible, with any degree of certainty, to guess which projects are likely to report new improper payment (or fraud/corruption – in a limited sense of the word) cases within the next 12 months: Can such an approach lead to better operational risk management in general?
- Is it possible to anticipate the rating of a project, say, three years before the actual rating exercise is conducted?
We know that these questions are rather ambitious and may require a good dose of reality check from data specialists. This is why we envisage that the first stage in our exploration of big data will be one (or perhaps more) data dive(s) to refine the questions, look at availability of datasets.
We are aiming for the end of February. This will be followed by a big data competition in April or May to develop tools and techniques with proven application to development operations. We hope that the results could be a public good for the whole development community.
Are you a data geek interested in contributing to development issues?
Is your organization interested in hosting a data dive?
Would you like to help refine the questions so that they have the maximum impact for the development community?
We’d love to hear from you.