UN uses social media market research to improve development, crisis response

Even an organization as governmental and bureaucratic as the United Nations can think and act like a marketer.Through Global Pulse, the UNĀ  is combining social media and big data to improve international development and crisis response.

According to Global Pulse, there are 6 billion mobile phones in the developing world. Many of those mobile users take to Twitter, Facebook, and other mobile platforms to discuss in real time such topics as food prices, severe weather, lack of employment, women’s and children’s health, and other critical topics that relate to the Millennium Development Goals. Analyzing all that content can pinpoint developing crises, provide customer insight, and support the creation of new products and services to help improve health, alleviate poverty, and increase responsible economic development.

Global Pulse gets access to this data by asking mobile providers. They also form partnerships with other commercial companies to increase both their access to data and their ability to analyze it. They’ve termed this “data philanthropy.” By receiving donations of data and analytics capabilities, they are able to provide services and assistance to those in need.

“We’re interested in exploring how data can be shared,” said Robert Kirkpatrick, director of Global Pulse in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General United Nations, as quoted in the newsletter FierceBigData. “Perhaps through some combination of open commons, closed commons and semi-closed commons pools.”

I do wonder about the privacy implications of this type of research. Plenty of people are up in arms about the NSA snooping into phone records. Sure, Global Pulse is much more transparent than the NSA. But to me there’s fundamental difference between social media, which conversations are published for multiple people to see and can be flagged for anyone to see, and phone calls, which are mainly person-to-person conversations with the expectation of privacy.

If you want to learn more, Global Pulse publishes their research online. You can download their whitepaper on big data for development.


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