Big Data for Sustainable Development

Big Data

The volume of data in the world is increasing exponentially. By some estimates, 90% of the data in the world has been created in the last two years, and it is projected to increase by 40% annually. A large share of this output is “data exhaust,” or passively collected data deriving from everyday interactions with digital products or services, including mobile phones, credit cards, and social media. This deluge of digital data is known as big data.  Data is growing because it is increasingly being gathered by inexpensive and numerous information‐sensing, mobile devices and because the world’s capacity for storing information has roughly doubled every 40 months since the 1980s.

The Data Revolution

The data revolution — which encompasses the open data movement, the rise of crowdsourcing, new ICTs for data collection, and the explosion in the availability of big data, together with the emergence of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things — is already transforming society. Advances in computing and data science now make it possible to process and analyse big data in real time. New insights gleaned from such data mining can complement official statistics and survey data, adding depth and nuance to information on human behaviours and experiences. The integration of this new data with traditional data should produce high-quality information that is more detailed, timely and relevant.


Data is the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability. Today, in the private sector, analysis of big data is commonplace, with consumer profiling, personalised services, and predictive analysis being used for marketing, advertising and management. Similar techniques could be adopted to gain real-time insights into people’s wellbeing and to target aid interventions to vulnerable groups. New sources of data, new technologies, and new analytical approaches, if applied responsibly, can enable more agile, efficient and evidence-based decision-making and can better measure progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a way that is both inclusive and fair.


Fundamental elements of human rights have to be safeguarded to realize the opportunities presented by big data: privacy, ethics and respect for data sovereignty require us to assess the rights of individuals along with the benefits of the collective. Much new data is collected passively – from the ‘digital footprints’ people leave behind and from sensor-enabled objects – or is inferred via algorithms. Because big data is the product of unique patterns of behaviour of individuals, removal of explicit personal information may not fully protect privacy. Combining multiple datasets may lead to the re-identification of individuals or groups of individuals, subjecting them to potential harms. Proper data protection measures must be put in place to prevent data misuse or mishandling.

There is also a risk of growing inequality and bias. Major gaps are already opening up between the data haves and have-nots. Without action, a whole new inequality frontier will split the world between those who know, and those who do not. Many people are excluded from the new world of data and information by language, poverty, lack of education, lack of technology infrastructure, remoteness or prejudice and discrimination. There is a broad range of actions needed, including building the capacities of all countries and particularly the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Land-locked Developing Countries (LLDCs), and Small Island Developing States (SIDS).