The United Nations has begun an initiative called Global Pulse, which aims to “harness innovation to protect the vulnerable.” Zazie Schafer Nencetti, deputy director of the initiative, says the project is looking to collect and process data from all over the world and use it to spot and respond to signs of crisis, such as a sudden increase in international phone calls. “People in the remotest villages are connected via mobile phones,” she says. “There must be data.”
Nencetti says the project is taking steps to involve residents of troubled areas more directly by means of efforts such as “Pulse Labs” in developing nations. Such labs will aim to recruit local technologists and entrepreneurs who might also find local uses for the information that is gathered. One of the first will be in Kampala, Uganda. Global Pulse is also building an open data collection platform based in part on existing projects such as Ushahidi, which allows people to report on a crisis via text message, e-mail, Twitter, or a Web page. The platform collects and maps this data and makes it easy for people involved in the crisis to share information—an approach that links privileged technologists with vulnerable people.
Townsend notes that different groups design such projects differently: grassroots organizations tend to design technologies that are distributed and interoperable, he says, while academics seek to collect information that reveals patterns, and corporations try to find ways to increase efficiency and save money. “It’ll be interesting to see which approach over time starts to dominate and how cities choose their own paths in this battle,” he says.