Exclusive Interview: Big Data and Data Science at UN

We interview the UN Chief Information Technology Officer about how Big Data and Data Science can help solve world's problem. Check Unite Ideas crowdsourcing platform for data analytics challenges where you can help.

I have recently attended a Big Data Innovation Summit in Boston (Sep 9-10), and had a chance to listen to an inspiring talk by Atefeh Riazi, United NationsAssistant Secretary-General, Chief Information Technology Officer at the United Nations, essentially a CTO of the UN. She talked about what Big Data and Data Science can do to help solve the many problems UN and the world faces and kindly agreed to do a short interview to bring these issues to the attention of the wider Data Science community.

Gregory Piatetsky, Q1: What we 2-3 important parts of your job?

Atefeh RiaziAtefeh Riazi, @UN_CITO My role as the CITO is to help modernize the UN so we can deliver in our mandates, transform the organization through the use of innovation and technology and develop a cyber security strategy that responds to the changing world.

GP, Q2: What are some examples of crises that could have be predicted?

AR: There are many past crises that have been analyzed after the fact using Big Data. One of the earliest examples that really drew people's attention was the global Avian Flu crisis, where it was demonstrated that statistical analysis of search queries typed in by the public on popular search engines could be a good indicator of the spreading of the disease around the world.

In the Ebola crisis we could have benefited a lot more from analytics. I do believe that learning from these will bring us closer to preventing crises or at least being better prepared. This is true for political or economic crises, which much depend on human behavior (analysis of social media is an obvious source of data here), for environmental crises (e.g. global warming which is already being analyzed using a wide range of data sources) and for natural disasters (where satellite photos and seismological data can give us crucial time gains in early warning that translate to lives being saved).

GP, Q3: Even when crises are very predictable, like already noticeable climate change, it is very difficult to get some politicians and countries to act if it is against their short-term interest. Can (data) science play a role in making a more convincing argument?

AR: Clearly a story or argument that is backed up by hard facts, by data that is clearly sourced and validated, is more convincing. There is a trend in news media to do exactly that: publications such as the New York Times, the Guardian and others increasingly integrate data analytics, even interactive visualizations, into their reporting. The public will soon demand this type of transparency, clarity and proof, not only from news media but from governments and politicians as well. I believe we are heading towards a time where data will be used in politics, both to make arguments and commitments and to hold leaders accountable.

GP: Q4. What were some successes and achievements at the UN made possible by Data Science and Big Data? What about risks and downsides of Big Data?

AR: We have experimented with a number of different techniques. For example we have just created a tool to monitor and analyze the official statements of countries on particular topics over time. This is not only for our own use but particularly as a tool to facilitate diplomacy for the Delegates of our Member States. Official statements from countries can these days be found in the form of tweets, blog posts or other forms of online discussion, and keeping track of hundreds or thousands of these is not an easy task. With Data Analytics techniques we can now provide effective search and even trend analysis.

We make heavy use of text analysis to make the large repositories of UN documents more easily accessible and provide new insight, for instance in relationships between documents and topics. We are now starting to do the same with multimedia repositories: audio and video recordings of UN meetings and photo archives.

In terms of predictive analytics, social media is of course an important data source for the political and socio-economic areas of our work, and we are actively exploring this.

We are still at the early stages of systematically incorporating Data Science in the daily work of the organization, but I believe these techniques will ultimately be leveraged in every field.

With regard to the risks of Big Data, I see those stemming from the fact that the norms and rules in our society have trouble keeping up with the speed at which technology develops and the availability of data increases. If we can hardly imagine all the possible applications of data analytics today, let alone 5 years from now, how can we judge the consequences of how we share, store and treat our data? This is true at the personal level but at the policy level as well: most countries are implementing legislation related to privacy and appropriate use of data, but these laws will need constant updating to keep pace with reality.

GP: Q5. There are many global crises at present, from climate change to Syrian refugees. What can Data Science community do to help? Are there UN projects or activities where interested and able Data Scientists can volunteer?

AR: We have just launched a platform for this purpose:
Unite IdeasUnite Ideas (unite.un.org/ideas), a crowdsourcing platform where we post data analytics challenges for individuals who would like to contribute. I encourage all data scientist to take a look and consider signing up as a volunteer.

We also welcome collaboration with organizations, both from the private sector, from academia and the non-profit sector. We already have a number of very fruitful partnerships with organizations that have generously shared their research, donated licenses for data analytics software or made their time and expertise available. We welcome other partnerships that help us tap into the potential of Data Science in the work of the UN, to support our Member States and generally to help improve lives around the world.

Finally I am happy that there is an active Open Source community in the area of Data Science and I welcome collaboration with them. The concept of Open Source aligns well with the ideals of the UN. Since I have started this job I have hosted two large Open Source conferences at the United Nations (NYC Drupal Camp and Open Streetmap's "State of the Map") and I would be happy to do the same in the area of Data Science.

GP: check for example dynamic visualization: UN Security Council Resolutions Relationships Explorer Un Security Council Explorer

and other solutions at https://unite.un.org/ideas/solutions