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UN tackles socio-economic crises with big data

Julia King | June 4, 2013
United Nations researchers had a sobering realization in 2010. For all of the official data and reports collected by the group's member nations and various UN programs and agencies, precious little of the data that supports the organization's operations was truly up to date.

Global Pulse is set up as an innovation lab at the UN in New York and is highly dependent on partners like SAS. "We're really a space to learn how big data and some of the new analytic technologies could be useful to the UN system," she says.

"We're very interested in reaching out to the private sector because we're interested in taking what has been tried [there] and seeing how it can be applied to UN processes," says Tatevossian. For example, she compares Global Pulse's work on unemployment to work that consumer goods companies do on a daily basis. "All we did is re-jig [the tools] that are used for brand monitoring and we treated unemployment as a brand," she says.

The UN has opened an additional Global Pulse lab in Jakarta, Indonesia, and will soon open a third in Kampala, Uganda.

Taking the Planet's Pulse
Every minute of every day, hundreds of thousands of sensors collect a huge volume of climate-related data for use by scientists working on very specific research projects at government organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA.

"What we figured is that there must be a way to leverage this data in a wider way, to help companies with some of the climate-related issues they're grappling with," says Travis Koberg, head of Computer Science Corp.'s Big Data and Analytics Group, a 2013 Computerworld Honors Laureate.

Enter ClimatEdge, a suite of risk management tools that applies big data analytics to historical data from NASA, NOAA and other public sources. By exploiting this previously underutilized climate data resource, ClimatEdge provides new insights to commercial and public interests that need to minimize risk and make better-informed decisions, says Koberg.

Electronics manufacturers, for example, might want to find alternatives to East Asian semiconductor supplies if Pacific storms fueled by warming ocean waters become more intense. Or homebuilders might want to prepare for fluctuations in lumber prices brought on by climate conditions that force pine beetles and other pests that prey on trees to expand their range and destroy more forests.

Most of the data CSC is collecting is structured. What distinguishes ClimatEdge as a big data project is the sheer volume of data being collected and analyzed, says Koberg. "The volume is on an order of magnitude scale that you can't do a lot with in Excel, which is what a lot of scientists use," he says.

ClimatEdge began producing reports in June 2012. It is updated on a continuing basis as CSC learns new ways to apply evolving data science principles and gains access to new data sources.

Looking ahead, Koberg says he expects CSC to tap into, combine and analyze other underused big data reservoirs. "Climate is just one area of data. Healthcare is another. We work with healthcare where we collect data across a health system and put it together with climate data to hypothesize about characteristics tied to a certain disease," he explains. "Over time, we're looking at all sorts of data in various domains."


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