More than a million customers around the world buy something at Walmart every hour. As they do, the retail giant collects data on their buying habits and adds it to a database containing the equivalent of 50 million four-door filing cabinets of text. Analyzing this torrent of data to understand and predict consumer behavior can be a profitable endeavor. Indeed, “big data” already helped Walmart’s US competitor Target to detect pregnancies by identifying changes in buying habits, so that it could adjust its marketing accordingly and increase sales dramatically.
For the private sector, big data is the next frontier in terms of creating value. But being able to understand when and why human behavior changes also offers huge potential for the public good, not least in the area of conflict prevention.
Right now, though, big data presents us with a new kind of digital divide—one that hinges on access to analytics rather than consumption of content. As large corporations leverage their own datasets and a number of governments release treasure troves of “public” data, poorer governments, civil society organizations, and multilateral bodies struggle to analyze big data for peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian ends. And conflict-prevention actors in particular may be getting left behind.
- The private sector has embraced big data analytics to drive innovation. Building on initiatives in the development and humanitarian fields, conflict-prevention actors should foster partnerships with corporations willing to share anonymized data and analytical expertise that could contribute to preventing violence and conflict.
- As governments increasingly embrace open-data policies, those seeking to better understand the structural causes of conflict should capitalize on already-public datasets.
- Public and private sector actors need to develop a framework for identifying the levels of trust, transparency, and control that citizens, corporations, and governments are willing to accept when it comes to sharing data in contexts of violence and conflict.
Big data can offer insights into deep social, political, and economic trends as well as individual and group behavior. As previously outlined in this publication, it could therefore play a valuable role in both long-term efforts to address the root causes of conflict and short-term efforts to prevent outbreaks of violence. If plummeting wheat imports in Arab countries helped spark the Arab Spring, for example, or if phone call volumes increase before violence breaks out, then those seeking to prevent conflict need to draw on a much wider variety of data than before to make more informed decisions.
Two reports published last month make it clear that international actors, governments, and civil society organizations recognize big data’s potential in both conflict prevention and crisis response. But who has the data, and how can it be tapped?