KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Action in real time at the UN: A New Hope (reflections on #openUN)

with 4 comments

Last week I attended the panel “Open UN, Engagement in the Age of Real Time”  during social media week. The meeting consisted of a presentation by PSFK on their report “The future of Realtime“, a keynote by Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse, and two panel discussions on “Real time field operations” and “Institutions in the age of real time”.

The full programme can be found here.
The recording of the session can be found here here.
Good summary of the discussion from Patrick McNamara here in the comments.
There was also pretty extensive coverage in Twitter under the hashtag #openun

I won’t give a full accounting of the panel discussions since others will do that and you can see the recording for yourself. But I do want to share few highlights/observations from this very interesting and encouraging panel discussion. Here are my main take-aways:

1. Need for realtime data – In the past we have often needed to wait months or even years to be able to amass, interpret and publish analysis of emerging situations in official statistics. But we need to respond quickly to emerging crises, and so need to be able to gather and analyze data in real time in order to take timely informed action.

2. New possibilities to collect it – many new technologies and approaches make it increasingly possible to do this. Mobile technology can be used to quickly collect data and transfer it to a central location for analysis, especially given the high penetration of mobile phones. There is also great possibilities to use “data exhaust” i.e. data coming out of administrative process or as a by product of people’s activity which could be collected and analyzed in real time. There are also new analytical techniques which can be used to quickly make sense of this. The PSFK report gives a wide range of examples. The potential uses range from monitoring economic crises, conflict, disease outbreaks, monitoring the delivery of supplies, or giving populations a voice in issues that affect them.

3. Too much data? – In future the problem will not be lack of data, it will rather be too much data. How are we going to filter/manage it – do we have the skills to do it? Developing new skills and techniques to process and make sense of large amounts of data, and at a personal level the skills to filter through the various conflicting signals and noise that pass our way to determine what is important will become increasingly important. While there are some promising analytical techniques to help deal with large volumes of data I think this is an area that still needs a lot of work. One important approach is that of open data. Making more data available publicly opens up new possibilities to make use of the data, ad alloows more people to engage with it and make useful outputs from it. But sometimes this data needs expert interpretation, otherwise misinterpretation could lad to incorrect and possibly harmful conclusions being drawn – so we also need to focus on the interpretation- not just on openness.

Dealing with information overload and sense-making at an individual level whether as “aid professionals” or as “decision makers” is also a major challenge for those working in the development sector and an area where tools and skills for personal effectiveness need to be developed.

4. (In) ability to act – While a lot of the current focus is on quick collection and analysis of data, one of the biggest challenges in large organizations is our ability to respond with equal speed and decisiveness. Having good data can help, but not if we don’t change our decision making models and practices first. Large organizations, and institutions such as the UN and the multilateral system are naturally (by design) slow to take decisions and to respond to change. The seeming inability of the “global community” to agree on concerted action on climate change despite the obvious urgency is a prime example.

5. Shifting powers – Power is shifting away from traditional institutions such as the UN, Governments, large corporations and NGOs as people are more able to hold them accountable or take action independently. This applies in development but also beyond. But one of the challenges is that the existing powers don’t want to acknowledge and accept this change and so global decision making fora (UN, G8, Davos etc.) don’t reflect this change in “real” power.

6. How much has social media and technology really got to do with the changes in power? There was a lot of chat about the role of technology in the recent Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, but one of the panelists (@carneross) was quick to warn that while technology can help bring people together and help them communicate, we shouldn’t overestimate the role of technology, and need to remember that real change is brought about by action, power and resources (blood and money). We therefore need to ensure we don’t use technological participation as a  substitute for real-world action.

7. Change our bureaucracies or work with agile players? – There was a lot of talk about the day to day challenges of working in the UN system or in “Development”, and how many small social entrepreneurs were able to take risks and make significant innovations while the major aid players cannot – but that the major players are the only ones who have the scale and resources needed to make innovative ideas go to scale. But does this mean that the UN itself should be carrying out innovation, or should we be partnering with other more agile organizations and individuals.

The creation of teams like UN Global Pulse or the UNICEF innovations team is one way forward – but still this is still only a small part of the UN. Should these be more widespread? Should the UN focus on developing partnerships with more agile organizations – with the UN identifying the big challenges and providing support, but with other organizations creating and implementing solutions. Informal and personal partnerships between the UN and academia and social entrepreneurs around areas of mutual interest was also stressed as a useful way of working together, avoiding some of the bureaucratic hurdles in establishing formal partnerships.

Adoption of techniques such as fail-fast and action-learning for programming in the UN was also mentioned, especially for working in those areas where knowledge of “the best approach” is limited and where the situation is changing rapidly.  Greater adoption of technological tools in the everyday work of the UN, to improve organizational effectiveness and co-ordination was also stressed, also as a way of decentralizing decision making on day to day operational issues. This should include use of open source technology to allow the UN to tap into the skills of the developer community and also to be able to share back what it develops for the use of others.

8. This is not the UN I’m used to – The people at the meetings, and the nature of the discussions was refreshing and inspiring. But I’ve got to go back to my office afterwards where things are quite different. Don’t get me wrong, most people I come across in the UN system are both smart and hardworking. But the environment we work in day to day is also more challenging as there is much more resistance to change and aversion to risk. There are also layers of procedure and decision making, and reporting requirements to navigate.

What we really need is for some of the energy and ideas from the meeting to permeate our daily work, and for this type of working to be more widespread and more visibly supported by our bosses within the UN and from the member states. The presence and encouraging words of Robert Orr, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning  is a strong positive sign. The wide range of external people who want to help the UN to take these steps, and the appetite for this change among many UN staffers also offer hope.

The key now will be to build a “coalition of the willing” from inside and outside the UN who can work together to make this happen. This meeting helped identify the potential and some of the possible ways forward, while also bringing together some of the people who want to and will need to work together to make it a reality.


Written by Ian Thorpe

February 16, 2011 at 10:31 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Olav Kjorven, Simon Woodford. Simon Woodford said: RT @ithorpe Action in real time at the UN: A New Hope (reflections on #openUN) #in #kmers […]

  2. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your post. I am currently writing a piece on UN office morale and organizational culture…. as a long time UN person myself I have a few opinions, but, would love to hear more about what you wrote below:

    “This is not the UN I’m used to. The people at the meetings, and the nature of the discussions was refreshing and inspiring. But I’ve got to go back to my office afterwards where things are quite different. Don’t get me wrong, the people I work with are are both smart and hardworking. But the environment I work in day to day is also more challenging as there is much more resistance to change and aversion to risk. There are also layers of procedure and decision making, and reporting requirements to navigate.”


    February 17, 2011 at 5:07 am

  3. […] 5. Real time data collection and response  in crisis – this is an emerging field which includes some notable examples such as Ushahidi, but which also has been the subject of some controversy. The UN Global Pulse project has been set up to  develop ways of doing this effectively  – there was a good discussion on this at the recent OpenUN panel during social media week. […]

  4. […] is happening – at least enough to act, if not enough to scientifically “know”. (See this previous blog on the possibilities of “real […]

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