Dragging Global Development Into The Digital Age

A look inside Global Pulse, the United Nations’ innovation incubator.

Dragging Global Development Into The Digital Age
Flickr user Harshil.Shah

Development will go digital, or it will go nowhere at all.


That was the message sent by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in an address to the General Assembly in November. “Our inability to understand the impacts of a crisis while there is still time to adjust our policies and programs threatens to reverse years of hard-won development gains,” said Ban. “Too often, by the time we have hard evidence of what is happening at the household level, the harm has already been done. … Our challenge is to leverage the enormous power of technology to make the world a better place.”

As it happens, someone has answered that call (Ban was actually praising them in his speech).

Global Pulse, an innovation incubator within in the UN, is turning data into tools for governments to protect their citizens by responding to crises in real time. “Global Pulse is using real-time data to track human well-being around the world, says Robert Kirkpatrick, director of the new UN initiative.

The group is designing and testing tools that will mine data in everything from mobile phone records to microfinance databases that reveal “digital smoke signals” of mounting problems, whether those are famines or financial collapse. Data, even when it’s aggregated and anonymous, is rich in meaning. Monitoring financial transactions and mobile phone usage can show signs of economic stress, or population movements preceding a problem. Survey questions sent by text message can reveal near-instant changes in people’s health and mood.

Yet governments and aid agencies today are flying blind. If that information is collected at all, it is months or years later before it’s parsed and analyzed. That’s far too late to help. Global Pulse’s 11-person operation–based in New York–plans to change that by focusing on three major tasks: developing useful indicators for real-time feedback about conditions on the ground and how policies are preforming; building a free open-source technology toolkit to make sense of data for decision makers; and establishing the Pulse Lab Network, where new data applications will be pioneered and tested. The next two will be in Indonesia and Uganda.

It’s not an international bureaucracy. Half the staff–a mix of policy specialists, development experts, open source hackers, academics, and researchers–come from outside the UN. It is pursuing open-source software development to deliver new tools. Its tech startup mission and feel (no cubicles, flat hierarchy, and Apple computers everywhere) has reportedly induced visiting UN officials pronounce it “so un-UN.” Kirkpatrick will need to keep it nimble and adaptive if he is going to generate new innovations that can spread across the UN system, and to member country governments.


One of Global Pulse’s first attempts is its Global Snapshot of Wellbeing, a partnership with the mobile marketing firm Jana and Data Without Borders, which matches nonprofits with data scientists. The effort sent out text message questions about health, the economy, and technology to more than 5,000 people in 23 countries, from Papua New Guinea to the Russian Federation. The 75,000 responses were collected in about two weeks and packaged into a free iPad App by PopTech. The early results are a new set of development indicators in a massive, ongoing survey looking far beyond GDP and infant mortality.

There’s been some early success of the concept. A similar approach was tested in Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, and subsequent cholera outbreak, with some success, according to a study published in PLoS Medicine.

Now, the systems need to be deployed to see what can be done on a global scale. If Global Pulse is successful, then digital data will simply become how development is done.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.