alex_sandy_pentland's picture
Professor of Computer Science, MIT; Director, MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs; Author, Social Physics
A World That Counts

In 2014 a group of big data scientists (including myself), representatives of big data companies, and the heads of National Statistical Offices from nations in both the northern and southern hemispheres, met within the United Nations headquarters and plotted a revolution. We proposed that all of the nations of the world begin to measure poverty, inequality, injustice, and sustainability in a scientific, transparent, accountable, and comparable manner. Surprisingly, this proposal was approved by the UN General Assembly in 2015, as part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

This apparently innocuous agreement is informally known as the Data Revolution within the UN, because for the first time there is an international commitment to discover and tell the truth about the state of the human family as a whole. Since the beginning of time, most people have been isolated, invisible to government and without information about or input to government health, justice, education, or development policies. But in the last decade this has changed. As our UN Data Revolution report, titled “A World That Counts,” states:

Data are the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability. Without high-quality data providing the right information on the right things at the right time, designing, monitoring and evaluating effective policies becomes almost impossible. New technologies are leading to an exponential increase in the volume and types of data available, creating unprecedented possibilities for informing and transforming society and protecting the environment. Governments, companies, researchers and citizen groups are in a ferment of experimentation, innovation and adaptation to the new world of data, a world in which data are bigger, faster and more detailed than ever before. This is the data revolution.

More concretely, the vast majority of humanity now has a two-way digital connection that can send voice, text, and most recently, images and digital sensor data because cell phone networks have spread nearly everywhere. Information is suddenly something that is potentially available to everyone. The Data Revolution combines this enormous new stream of data about human life and behavior with traditional data sources, enabling a new science of “social physics” that can let us detect and monitor changes in the human condition, and to provide precise, non-traditional interventions to aid human development.

Why would anyone believe that anything will actually come from a UN General Assembly promise that the National Statistical Offices of the member nations will measure human development openly, uniformly, and scientifically? It is not because anyone hopes that the UN will manage or fund the measurement process. Instead we believe that uniform, scientific measurement of human development will happen because international development donors are finally demanding scientifically sound data to guide aid dollars and trade relationships. 

Moreover, once reliable data about development start becoming familiar to business people, we can expect that supply chains and private investment will begin paying attention. A nation with poor measures of justice or inequality normally also has higher levels of corruption, and a nation with a poor record in poverty or sustainability normally also has a poor record of economic stability. As a consequence, nations with low measures of development are less attractive to business than nations with similar costs but better human development numbers.

Historically we have always been blind to the living conditions of the rest of humanity; violence or disease could spread to pandemic proportions before the news would make it to the ears of central authorities. We are now beginning to be able to see the condition of all of humanity with unprecedented clarity. Never again should it be possible to say “we didn’t know.” No one should be invisible. This is the world we want—a world that counts.