Businesses are using the vast amounts of data available today to understand and target their customers but they’re not the only ones who can benefit from doing this. If governments are able to analyze information in the same way, they can gain insights into how they are performing, while engaging more effectively with citizens.
One public body starting to take advantage of so-called big data analytics is the United Nations, in order to help meet the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).
As part of this, nations such as Afghanistan are using satellite imagery to make population estimates. This gives policymakers a more frequent analysis of population change – which is critical for SDG implementation.
“The census is only taken every 10 years, so this helps governments be more reactive,” says Serge Kapto, policy specialist, data for development, bureau of policy and program support at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “Big data analytics gives you good estimates that can assist in education and health. It also helps to estimate migration, in combination with mobile phone records, by tracking where people are going.”
Meanwhile, mobile applications are helping UN member states to harness data to meet the SDGs. In China, an app has been produced as part of a partnership between the UNDP and internet company Baidu. Available in 22 cities, the app links end users of electronic waste such as TVs or washing machines to relevant recycling companies.
Programs such as these are part of a push among governments to innovate and improve citizen engagement. Among its advantages, this type of approach allows citizens to hold governments to account, as well as enabling more evidence-based policy decisions. “Real time feedback allows governments to be more informed,” Gaya Branderhorst, director at KPMG in the US says.
But the ambitious SDG agenda poses policy and operational challenges. Among these is access to timely and accurate data, which is an essential part of monitoring the program’s progress and informing policy choices across the 17 goals and 169 targets.
At the same time, because large amounts of data are attractive to hackers, cyber security must be taken into account. The UN is aware of this risk and is currently putting together a set of basic policies to help manage the area.
There is also a need for resources to procure these complex technologies. Those involved say this makes public-private partnerships key to success.
“Governments cannot afford to invest trillions of dollars in this annually,” says Kate Maloney, senior manager, IDAS Institute, KPMG in the US. “This is why it’s important that the private sector puts forward resources to solve these problems. There are plenty of providers developing innovative solutions, but they come at a price.”
This is especially true in developing countries, which will require assistance in areas such as training. Yet ironically, the data opportunity is even bigger in these nations, according to Kapto. “The potential to leapfrog is huge in developing countries. They often have universal mobile coverage so can tap into ways of doing data analytics at a lower cost.”
The motivation by governments to use big data analytics is certainly there, but it is investment and skills within the private sector that will really make the difference. Pilots are already taking place but these will need to reach greater scale to have a wide reaching impact.
“There is lots happening here at HQ and down at country level,” Kapto says. “But we are only now putting in place the tools and partnerships to help us get there. The partnerships are key – there is no way a single stakeholder can do it on their own.”
This content was originally published on the KMPG Partner Zone on the Guardian Public Leaders Network on January 10, 2017.