Big data bootcamp: Discover, design, define

BY Sabrina Juran | May 11, 2015|Comments 0

What is big data and how can it benefit human development? A recent Big Data Bootcamp opened the floodgates on a deluge of data and asked the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to think about how to use it in meaningful ways.
What is big data?

Big data are the large amounts of digital data continually generated by the global population as byproducts of our daily lives. Social media is a major source of this information. We can add big data to the traditional kinds of data we have always used. While companies scramble to discover and analyse big data to sell their products and services, we in the development community want to reach our goals, too.

How we can harness the potential of the new and rapidly evolving digital landscape? Can it close some acute data gaps in our traditional data, especially regarding the poorest and most vulnerable populations? Can it improve policymaking and citizen empowerment?

Driving innovation through data

The UNFPA Innovation Fund organized a Big Data Bootcamp in Barcelona, Spain, to craft UNFPA’s vision for driving innovation through big data.

The UNFPA Big Data Bootcamp brought together 30 UNFPA data experts, and more than 25 external experts in academia, the private sector, and from other UN agencies. The three-day workshop used hands-on methodologies to explore the implications and practical applications of big data for UNFPA, and the thematic areas in which UNFPA can become meaningfully engaged in big data.

The meeting employed an innovative, “design-driven” methodology to implore participants to generate new ideas, unexpected insights and outcomes. The Bootcamp was held at Betahaus, a creative co-working environment, and brought together leading facilitators from firms such as Know Innovation. The Bootcamp was highly participatory and interactive, with numerous working group and breakout sessions to explore new ideas, build prototypes and offer creative project pitches in plenary.

  • Getting the word out about big data: All presentations, the agenda and participant information are available on the Bootcamp Event Site.
  • The Bootcamp was live-streamed across UNFPA and linked to the UNFPA website at
  • An app was developed to capture data on the meeting and participants in real-time.
  • Numerous tweets using the hashtag #UNFPAbigdata and Facebook posts were shared around the world.
  • The Bootcamp picked up by media and professional networks and promoted through partner agencies.

Day One – Discovering Big Data

UNFPA has longstanding expertise in data and statistical processes. Like other UN agencies, it contends with recognized gaps in traditional development data. The development community is looking for opportunities to be harnessed through the Data Revolution, new data sources, big data, new technologies and innovation.

After an opening presentation, plenary sessions introduced big data conceptual frameworks, opportunities and challenges. Afternoon case study breakout sessions explored practical applications of big data for development organizations.

Day Two – Designing with big data

The second day was about moving beyond thinking of big data as ‘just’ large data sets, to focus instead on the ‘3 Cs’ of big data – data crumbs, data capacities and the larger data community. The workshop asked what kind of challenges could big data address, and could we design some prototype solutions?

Participants formed small groups based on UNFPA’s key thematic areas and big data sources such as Call Details Records, Social Media, Remote Sensing, and Financial Transaction Data. Participants were taken through a human-centered design methodology.

Day Three – Defining the future of big data

Participants formed working groups following the data lifecycle from data collection, through analysis, to utilization. The workshop asked how UNFPA could be meaningfully engaged at each stage.  The afternoon sessions developed a strategic vision for UNFPA’s big data work; captured ideas for prototyping big data projects for future consideration and looked at data through the Bootcamp App..

Results of the bootcamp

In addition to positioning UNFPA at the forefront of the big data movement, the Bootcamp established a number of tangible outcomes. A Big Data Vision document was initiated and outlined, four big data project ideas were developed and prototyped, and an App was developed for the Bootcamp, allowing for the real-time capture of data on meeting sessions and participants and is now available for use by UNFPA in future meetings). New partnerships were established with external experts, including from the private sector.


Sabrina Juran Sabrina is Technical Specialist, Data and Population Analysis, at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Follow her on Twitter

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