“'Big data' is a term that has come into vogue only in the last couple of years, and it refers to the tremendous explosion in volume and velocity and variety of digital data that is being produced around the world,” said Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse. “The statistics are somewhat astonishing: there was more data produced in 2011 alone than in all of the rest of human history combined back to the invention of the alphabet.”
Mr. Kirkpatrick’s department at the United Nations—Global Pulse—deals almost exclusively with big data, and its existence speaks volumes as to how some multilateral organizations are working to use this information.
“Global Pulse is an initiative that came out of the global financial crisis, at which point there was a recognition that we now live in this hyper-connected world where information movies at the speed of light, and a crisis can be all around the world very, very quickly, but we’re still using two- to three-year-old statistics to make most policy decisions.”
“A lot of this data is so new that even the private sector, which is the source of much of the data, is still struggling to learn how to use it,” Mr. Kirkpatrick said.
Big data makes some stunning claims. It can predict, with 90 percent accuracy, household incomes just by the frequency and amount people use mobile phones. It can predict unemployment spikes by examining online conversations about work. And health crises can be detected from spikes in Google searches for various symptoms.
However, this data mining has its critics. “Right now, the conversation around big data is very polarized,” said Mr. Kirkpatrick. “You might call it ‘Germany vs. Mark Zuckerberg.’ You have the very conservative prohibition against reuse without explicit permission that has become pervasive in the European Union; it’s a very guarded approach. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have companies that live on big data, which are saying privacy is dead, profit is king. We’re trying to insert a third pole into this debate, which is to say, big data is a raw public good.”
The interview was conducted by Marie O’Reilly, Publications Officer at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Marie O’Reilly: I’m here today with Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse. Thank you very much for speaking with us today, Robert. I’m wondering if you can briefly explain for our listeners, what is big data and what is UN Global Pulse? We’re particularly interested in hearing more about your strategy of combining research and practical field-based pulse labs. So why have you chosen this strategy, and what are you hoping to achieve as Global Pulse?