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Can big data deliver on its promise?

Did you know that, according to the UN Global Pulse, more data was created in 2011 than in the whole of human history, or at least, since the invention of the alphabet?

Technological and social innovations are resulting in huge flows of new data every day. This proliferation of so-called “big data” has the potential to change the way information is collected and used to inform policymaking.

New sources of data are increasingly providing real-time information to analysts and policy-makers. For example, it is now possible to collect price data on a wide range of goods and services with smartphones, and then calculate a daily price index. Similarly, job offers posted online provide a new source for analysing labour market trends, while data on Internet financial transactions and sales are increasingly used to forecast world output. At the same time, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have already revolutionised the way policymakers interact with civil society. Governments use these networks both to push their messages out and to pull information in that may influence the design and targeting of policies as people place more of their personal information on social networking sites.

International organisations are getting involved too, the creation of UN Global Pulse being a case in point. The OECD has also been harnessing the potential of big data. Collecting statistics and understanding trends are the daily bread of our organisation, and we have built innovative, interactive tools to draw in more and better information from the public. This, in turn, feeds into improving the policy recommendations we give to governments. The OECD Better Life Index is a good example of this. Launched in 2011, it is a user-friendly web application that members of the public can use to compare the quality of life in different countries and to develop their own indexes based on their tastes and preferences. They can then share their indexes far and wide, including with us at the OECD. Since 2008, the OECD has also been employing its Wikigender and Wikiprogress platforms in the area of gender equality and societal progress to engage in, and facilitate, policy dialogue with governments, civil society and citizens in all the countries in the world.

In OECD countries, national statistics offices are beginning to use big data to improve the timeliness and cost-effectiveness of their statistical production, too.

But big data does not automatically mean bigger and better information, and an increasingly important function of national statistics offices in the future will be to help users separate high quality statistical information from low quality data coming from all kinds of new sources.

There are other challenges too. One is Internet privacy, which is at risk of being undermined by relentless hunting for greater and more detailed information. And another is finding innovative ways to communicate and present the stories that the flood of new data generates. These are all challenges the OECD is addressing, so that, like the alphabet, the age of big data brings clear benefits to policymakers and citizens alike.

Visit www.oecd.org/statistics and www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org

O’Reilly, Marie, (2012), “Interview with Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse, on the Value of Big Data”, 5 November, available at www.theglobalobservatory.org

©OECD Observer No 293 Q4 November 2012