Big Data in Action

Not long ago in Official Statistics the topic ‘Big Data’ was mostly discussed in a theoretical manner.


However, now more and more real, and solid examples appear and demonstrate how Big Data work and what their outcome could be.

Some of these examples come from (Official) Statistics. These institutions use Big Data as a source and start applying a new analytical paradigm.


Example 1: Global Pulse (UN)

Global Pulse is a flagship innovation initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General on big data. Its vision is a future in which big data is harnessed safely and responsibly as a public good. Its mission is to accelerate discovery, development and scaled adoption of big data innovation for sustainable development and humanitarian action. … Big data represents a new, renewable natural resource with the potential to revolutionize sustainable development and humanitarian practice.’ –>

See some examples of using Big Data below:

  • analyse social media data for perceptions related to sanitation, in order to baseline public engagement
  • use of mobile phone data as a proxy for food security and poverty indicators
  • how risk factors (e.g., tobacco, alcohol, diet and physical activity) of non-communicable diseases (e.g., cancer, diabetes, depression) could be inferred from big data sources as social media and online internet searches


‘This paper outlines the opportunities and challenges, which have guided the United Nations Global Pulse initiative since its inception in 2009. The paper builds on some of the most recent findings in the field of data science, and findings from our own collaborative research projects. It does not aim to cover the entire spectrum of challenges nor to offer definitive answers to those it addresses, but to serve as a reference for further reflection and discussion. The rest of this document is organised as follows: section one lays out the vision that underpins Big Data for Development; section two discusses the main challenges it raises; section three discusses its application. The concluding section examines options and priorities for the future.’


Example 2: CBS

In Statistics Netherlands (CBS) Big Data is an important research topic.




Several examples were studied:

  • road sensors for traffic and transport statistics
  • mobile phone data for travel behaviour (of active phones) or tourism (new phones that register to network)
  • social media data for a sentiment analysis tracking words with their associated sentiment in Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Linkedin, etc.



Example 3: Report of the Global Working Group on Big Data for Official Statistics

In March 2015, the forty-sixth session of the UN Statistical Commission received a report about Big Data in Official Statistics:

‘The report presents the highlights of the International Conference on Big Data for Official Statistics, the outcome of the first meeting of the Global Working Group and the results of a survey on the use of big data for official statistics.’ …

‘The potential of big data sources resides in the timely — and sometimes real‑time — availability of large amounts of data, which are usually generated at minimal cost.  …. before introducing big data into official statistics …. it needs to adequately address issues pertaining to methodology, quality, technology, data access, legislation, privacy, management and finance, and provide adequate cost-benefit analyses.’

UN Statistical Commission Forty-sixth session 3-6 March 2015,
The full report (


Example 4: UNECE Statistics Wiki on Big Data in OfficialStatistics

A dedicated wiki offers an overview of the ever growing activities in the field of Official Statistics and Big Data. It’s managed by the Geneva Office of UNECE.2015-05-23_BIGData-UNECE-wiki

The wiki provides an interesting Big Data Inventory



Living Earth Platform

Statistics are an important source of information. But in a highly connected world it’s just one source among others. The ambitious international scientific program FuturICT will combine multiple data sources in order to provide (open) information at a new and not yet seen level.

Observation is the first step, simulation and exploration follow.

2013-05-04_future ict01

FuturICT – New Science  and Technology to Manage Our Complex, Connected World

Knowledge Accelerator

‘The FuturICT Knowledge Accelerator wants science to catch up with the speed at which new problems are arising in our changing world as a consequence of globalization, technological, demographic and environmental change. The ultimate goal of the project is to understand and manage complex, global, socially interactive systems. FuturICT will create the scientific methods and ICT platforms needed to address planetary-scale challenges and opportunities in the 21st century and thus contribute to make our societies more adaptive, resilient and sustainable.

FuturICT as a whole will act as a Knowledge Accelerator, turning massive data into knowledge and technological progress. Specifically, FuturICT will build a sophisticated simulation, visualization and participation platform, called the Living Earth Platform. This platform will power Interactive Observatories, to detect and mitigate crises, and Participatory Platforms, to support the decision-making of policy-makers, business people and citizens, and to facilitate a better social, economic and political participation.’ From and

prevent our society from running into a Dark Age of Information. A Background article:

‘FuturICT’s Dirk Helbing wrote an essay entitled Google as God? Opportunities and Risks of the Information Age. The essay “Google as God?” analyzes the Challenges and Opportunities of information society. Everything might happen to us, from a Big Brother Society to a Participatory Market Society. We will have to take the right decisions – but our society is not well prepared for these choices. To prevent our society from running into a Dark Age of Information, a public debate is urgently needed.’