Beyond Targeted Ads: Big Data for a Better World

Business & Industry, Beekman / Sutton North (NY Hilton)
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What can Big Data analysis tell us about human well-being? About how people cope with unemployment, rising food prices, or about people’s perceptions of HIV and other deadly diseases? A lot.

The United Nations’ Global Pulse initiative ( was established on the premise that Big Data didn’t just hold the answers to what products and services people prefer to consume. Big Data, we believe, also held information about how people were coping with global stresses like unemployment and natural disasters; and whether development programs were having the desired effect.

Over the past two years, researchers in both the public and private sectors have shown that indeed, massive passive data like twitter feeds, web content and mobile phone records can help us better understand when populations change their behavior in the face of crises, health epidemics or are struggling to make ends meet.

Today, there is no longer any question of whether or when data science will be applicable to the work of the United Nations to improve how we combat hunger, poverty and disease. It’s about how.

So now that we are past a “Proof of Concept” phase in this grand experiment, what’s next? How does Big Data for the public good – and especially in service of protecting the world’s most vulnerable populations – evolve from premise to practice? And how can your data, and your Big Data analytics skills, be a tool for good?

Robert Kirkpatrick

UN Global Pulse

Robert Kirkpatrick is Director of the Global Pulse initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General, which aims to harness big data for a real-time understanding of human well-being.

Robert’s activities in government, academia, UN agencies, NGOs and the private sector have focused on developing innovative solutions at the intersection of technology, policy and social change. Robert has more than 15 years of experience in the design and use of advanced technology tools in business, public health, disaster relief, security coordination, citizen journalism, telemedicine, crisis monitoring, conflict mediation, and peace building activities. His work has focused on strengthening public policy, enhancing crisis resilience and catalyzing organizational change. Robert advocates open data, open standards, open source software, and participatory development.

He co-founded and led software development for two pioneering private-sector humanitarian technology teams, including Microsoft Humanitarian Systems. In 2005 he supported response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina as well as vital relief organizations work following the Kashmir earthquake. In 2006 he contributed to situational awareness and information flows for telemedicine and social program monitoring in Afghanistan. During 2007-2009 he served as Chief Technical Officer of the nonprofit Innovative Support to Emergencies Diseases and Disasters (InSTEDD) where he helped established the first public health innovation lab in Cambodia. He now serves as Chairman of its Board of Directors.


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