How the U.N. Wants APIs for Big Data and a Better World

This year’s Mobile World Congress has been less about mobile and more about mobility. This suffix shows a significant change in tone from gadgets galore (which were there too) toward how much more we can or could do with the networks we’re connected by. Whether talking about the Internet of Things, virtual reality, tablets and watches, or the nine-button, data-less flip phone, devices are mattering less and less. What matters is what we do with the data we get from them and what data we send back. And the application programming interface (API) is surfacing as the best enabler for this innovation.

But we’re not there yet. This piece isn’t so much about how APIs have saved the world, but it’s about the power that you as the API provider or developer have to dramatically and positively affect real and measurable change, particularly in the parts of the world overwhelmed by war, poverty and hunger.

Last September the United Nations released its second 15-year global roadmap signed by all member states. The 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals [SDG] not only reflect a change by focusing on lifting both developing and developed countries, but they reflect an obvious change in our culture. Namely, since 2000, the Internet and mobile devices have changed our lives perhaps more than anything before it. Part of the U.N.’s 2030 goal is to build public, private and non-governmental partnerships to harness big data for peace, prosperity and a better planet.

Where Data Will Drive Humanitarian Decision Making

“The evolution of data and the changes have really been an evolution that has gone in parallel with the Millennium Development Goals,” explained Robert Kirkpatrick, head of Global Pulse, an arm of the U.N. focused on innovation. “We’re leading lives that are quantified, real-time, global, local, social, and we all take for granted that, anywhere we are, we can communicate, gather data, bank,” and so much more.

With only slightly more than half of the human race depending on these digital devices, there’s still a nearly immeasurable amount of data that can be put to use for disaster warning and response, early detection of disease outbreaks, food security and farming issues, and patterns of hunger.

Kirkpatrick says the SDG is a call for a data revolution. “A census every five or ten years isn’t appropriate in our changing world to know how things are working. It’s not just about planning, it’s about making decisions constantly.” He compares big data with a video that’s constantly streaming or a new natural, renewable and abundant resource.

Now, you don’t usually have a mental image of the world’s poorest and war-torn using sophisticated smartphones, which is often true, but data from basic feature phones even without GPS turned on can offer extraordinary insights.  

“Most people think of big data as something that’s produced by people running around with smartphones, but your basic $20 mobile phone actually produces a big amount of big data, and it’s virtually the only data being produced by people in areas without smartphones,” Kirkpatrick said.

Airtime alone gives incredible insights into how populations are displaced because of war, poverty and natural disaster, enabling organizations to better target humanitarian assistance where populations are assembling. This data allows us to understand quickly how diseases are spreading, including influenza, cholera, dengue, malaria and, probably soon, the Zika virus.

Airtime purchases have even become a proxy for household income to an impressive .89 correlation of accuracy. “The need to communicate and the need to eat are often competing in poor communities,” Kirkpatrick explained.

Jennifer Riggins Writer, marketer and luddite in a technical world. Obsessed with helping tech and startups sell their value to us laypeople, improve efficiency, management practices, and message. Learning something new and laughing every single day.

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