After Big Data: The Coming Age of “Big Indicators”

Andrew Zolli at the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Consider, for a moment, some of the most pernicious challenges facing humanity today: the increasing prevalence of natural disasters; the systemic overfishing of the world’s oceans; the clear-cutting of primeval forests; the maddening persistence of poverty; and above all, the accelerating effects of global climate change.

Each item in this dark litany inflicts suffering on the world in its own, awful way. Yet as a group, they share some common characteristics. Each problem is messy, with lots of moving parts. Each is riddled with perverse incentives, which can lead local actors to behave in a way that is not in the common interest. Each is opaque, with dynamics that are only partially understood, even by experts; each can, as a result, often be made worse by seemingly rational and well-intentioned interventions. When things do go wrong, each has consequences that diverge dramatically from our day-to-day experiences, making their full effects hard to imagine, predict, and rehearse. And each is global in scale, raising questions about who has the legal obligation to act—and creating incentives for leaders to disavow responsibility (and sometimes even question the legitimacy of the problem itself).

With dynamics like these, it’s little wonder systems theorists label these kinds of problems “wicked” or even “super wicked.” It’s even less surprising that these challenges remain, by and large, externalities to the global system—inadequately measured, perennially underinvested in, and poorly accounted for—until their consequences spill disastrously and expensively into view.

For real progress to occur, we’ve got to move these externalities into the global system, so that we can fully assess their costs, and so that we can sufficiently incentivize and reward stakeholders for addressing them and penalize them if they don’t. And that’s going to require a revolution in measurement, reporting, and financial instrumentation—the mechanisms by which we connect global problems with the resources required to address them at scale.

Thankfully, just such a revolution is under way.

It’s a complex story with several moving parts, but it begins with important new technical developments in three critical areas of technology: remote sensing and big data, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing.

Remote sensing and big data allow us to collect unprecedented streams of observations about our planet and our impacts upon it, and dramatic advances in AI enable us to extract the deeper meaning and patterns contained in those vast data streams. The rise of the cloud empowers anyone with an Internet connection to access and interact with these insights, at a fraction of the traditional cost.

In the years to come, these technologies will shift much of the current conversation focused on big data to one focused on “big indicators”—highly detailed, continuously produced, global indicators that track change in the health of the Earth’s most important systems, in real time. Big indicators will form an important mechanism for guiding human action, allow us to track the impact of our collective actions and interventions as never before, enable better and more timely decisions, transform reporting, and empower new kinds of policy and financing instruments. In short, they will reshape how we tackle a number of global problems, and everyone—especially nonprofits, NGOs, and actors within the social and environmental sectors—will play a role in shaping and using them….(More)”.