As Ebola ravaged Liberia, Unicef asked local residents to send text messages to update the humanitarian group on conditions in their neighborhoods. More than 30,000 people agreed to answer a few questions, and their responses formed a rich repository of information that helped not just Unicef but governments and nonprofits respond in real time to the health crisis.
The growing use of big data by humanitarian groups prompted Unicef and the Bloomberg media company to take a step to advance such work by creating a researcher-in-residence job at the group’s New York headquarters.
Unicef is not new to handling data; it has a team of researchers and analysts and has already forged partnerships with technology companies. But the group wants to continue to stay on top of trends in using data.
"We always need to be evolving and changing," said Chris Fabian, co-leader of the organization’s innovation unit.
The new researcher-in-residence will spend up to a year supporting Unicef’s staff members as they collect and analyze data and put it to use. Bloomberg will provide financial support for the job plus its data-science expertise.
Gideon Mann, head of data science at Bloomberg, says he hopes that creating such a job will help nonprofits connect with researchers in academe and industry to show them how they can apply their skills to solve humanitarian problems. "Data scientists want to make an impact but don’t know who to help," he said.
Bloomberg will take a step toward building those connections at its Data for Good Exchange conference on September 28. Finalists for the researcher-in-residence job at Unicef will each be asked to give presentations there.