The Future of Data at the UN

8 October 2019

By Atefeh Riazi, Assistant Secretary-General, Chief Information Technology Officer, Office of Information and Communications Technology

There is a general perception across organizations, including at the United Nations, that the topic of data should be managed and led by “IT” or “technical” people. In the UN, data is usually associated with the Office of Information and Communications Technology and Information Management teams located in various departments.

As the UN’s Chief Information Technology Officer, I believe that perception must change.

If we are to create an effective data ecosystem across the Secretariat, we need to develop a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach when speaking about data. We need to rethink traditional concepts and framework around data and information management. And we need to make room for diverse perspectives. This approach aligns with a central theme of a report published in April by the Secretary-General's Panel on Digital Cooperation, which cogently illustrates the urgency for digital cooperation and the dangers of working in silos.

Developing a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach, means that although we need engineers, programmers, mathematicians and statisticians to help us understand the world of data, we also need economists, lawyers, ethicists, humanitarians, policy makers, security experts, and designers. It means that engaging the business side on the data conversation is essential, as is collaborating with external partners, including from the private sector and academia.

For organizations, successfully managing data and leveraging analytics present serious challenges. For example, organizations are spending between 80-90 percent of their time cleaning and managing their data, rather than analyzing it for better decision-making and predictions. And although we are spending all this time cleaning and managing data, we know that most results are often not reproducible, and this undermines our trust in the data. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly challenging for organizations to have an accurate inventory of their data assets.

The point is that to leverage our data, we need to know what assets we hold. And doing so in a world of big data has proven to be very challenging. For example, the UN digital Library website has almost 1 million, including documents and publications, maps, images, speeches, and more. This, however, is just a fraction of our historical records.

There are numerous data champions across our Organization – entities that have successfully leveraged the power of the data to better serve the UN’s mandates. Three examples include the Department of Social and Economic Affairs (DESA), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the UN Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC).

DESA has created a data-driven framework that has allowed the international community to measure progress made in achieving the Sustainable Goals. OCHA has led its impressive work on the Humanitarian Data Exchange, which allows humanitarians to find, share and use humanitarian data all in one place. UNOCC’s comprehensive platform known as SAGE over the last several years has helped peacekeepers monitor and analyze the multi-dimensional areas of peace and political missions.

However, what is missing at the Secretariat is a common thread.

We need a data strategy with common principles and practices that can enable all of us across the Secretariat to have a coordinated approach to data, so that we can collectively leverage the value of data within and between our teams.

How can we do this and what is the value of doing so? Do we have the necessary skills as a workforce? Can we trust that such an ecosystem is safe for us to join and participate in? What role if any can artificial intelligence play in all of this? And how can we ensure that the entire process is ethical?

We hope to address these and other data-related questions on this blog and, thereby, facilitate a multidisciplinary conversation on data across the UN Secretariat.

Visit this space regularly for more content on this increasingly important topic.

*The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.