Universities and Big Data

It’s great to see the International Conference On Sustainable Development is returning for the third year running this September. I was fortunate to present at the first event at Columbia University, New York, in 2013.

My research examined the great insights that organisations such as the UN have gained by adapting Big Data techniques for international development, and looked at whether civil society could similarly harness this technology. My premise for doing so was part of a lofty ideal – to ‘decentralise’ development, to move the centres of development power away from multinational bodies and towards smaller players. You can read the conference paper here (PDF file, pp. 26-35), including case studies of corruption, cocaine and malaria.

Big Data presents exciting opportunities for understanding and tackling development issues. Agencies such as UN Global Pulse are pushing this work forward, opening offices in Jakarta and Kampala. Small organisations and civil society will increasingly work with Big Data as the hurdles to harnessing meaningful insights decrease. Large organisations such as Amazon.com have long used Big Data as a foundation for understanding customers. But there is a key role for universities too, and not just through using Big Data to improve teaching and learning. As Simon McGrath notes, higher education has a role in engaging with some of the recent ‘big development ideas’, from the call for a ‘data revolution’, through enthusiasm for ‘evidence-based policymaking’, to the rise of the ‘what works’ agenda.

Big Data isn’t a panacea for solving all development challenges. Universities can help frame Big Data within the wider context of development processes, they can rigorously scrutinise methods and policy conclusions, and can use Big Data to complement the wider research agenda. At the same time, universities often work both locally and internationally, and can draw on the benefits Big Data is delivering to both small organisations and multinational agencies.

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