On Wednesday, 9 December 2015 the Secretariat of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21) organised a side event at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The event was dedicated to innovative technologies and new data sources and their use for disaster risk management and preparedness.

Key conclusions

Johannes Jütting, PARIS21 Secretariat Manager, summarized major points from the panel and translated them into three recommendations for the PARIS21 Secretariat.

  • Financing. The negative effects of climate change are likely to increase, creating additional burdens, especially for developing countries. Donors must be made aware of the necessity to raise funds to improve statistical capacity in support of data-driven climate change adaption; concretely speaking, 1 percent of the USD 100 billion funding target for climate change should be earmarked for statistical capacity building.
  • Knowledge-sharing. Policy experts and development professionals would benefit from a knowledge hub around data for climate change adaptation, especially with regard to the application of innovative technologies. PARIS21 could enhance its data revolution innovations inventory to gather case studies and best practices for capacity building and operationalizing harmonized statistical frameworks in the area of disaster risk management.
  • Policy. The data community needs to focus on the global policy context to align approaches to adaption-related statistical capacity building and national strategies for the development of statistics (NSDSs) with targets set by frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. PARIS21 could also play a role in helping to translate private-sector activities into the development context.

The P21 Secretariat is currently looking into best practices of public-private partnerships by reviewing opportunities, challenges and lessons learnt in using new data sources (telecom data, social media, sensors, credit card records and others) to enrich official statistics. A central objective of these activities is to develop a business model that is attractive for the private-for-profit and not-for-profit sectors to provide access and share their data.

Discussion summary

El Iza Mohamedou, Deputy Manager of the PARIS21 Secretariat, moderated a diverse panel including experts from UN agencies, national governments and the private sector. Panellists approached the topic from different angles, showcasing country experiences in the application of new technologies, exploring opportunities for co-operation between the private sector and governments, and zooming in on the capacity building challenge that many developing countries’ administrations face.

Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse kicked off the debate by drawing the big picture of how innovative approaches to data analysis can benefit development purposes. Kirkpatrick used the example of big data, in particular data stemming from mobile phone use, and explained how it can be used to track household consumption, food security or the displacement of people, among others. According to Kirkpatrick, big data is a new and abundant natural resource that can be used for public good – but it is critical that it is used in a constructive and universally beneficial manner.

The panel then moved on to two specific country cases. Dr. Rosa Perez, member of the Philippines Climate Change Commission’s National Panel of Technical Experts, explained that her home country is one of most affected by natural disasters. It therefore relies on a number of technologies to ensure preparedness and rapid responses. Among these are satellite imagery and weather data, but also data from social media and crowdsourcing. A resilient society, Dr. Perez concluded, needs to build on the interplay of technology, community and government support.

Whereas Dr. Perez gave an overview of different approaches to gathering disaster data, Andrew Napuat from the Vanuatu Ministry of Climate Change looked at the specific case of drones and how they were used to assess damage caused by Cyclone Pam in March 2015. Although drones proved useful to get a quick overview of large and remote territories, Napuat said that not all data could be transferred into usable formats, indicating the necessity to improve technological capacities. The full potential of innovative technologies can only unfold with the right knowledge and infrastructure.

Nicolas de Cordes of Orange France then illustrated how the private sector can innovate data collection methods for disaster risk management. He presented an analysis Orange carried out during flooding in the south of France in October 2015. The analysis showed how mobile phone data can be used to identify affected parts of the population and size up the emergency response needed. This is an approach that could be transferred to other regions. However, to make private-partnerships work in the development context, data collection needs be simplified and turned into a cheap, affordable service. De Cordes called this the “IKEA-Approach to big data”. 

Muralee Thummarukudy of the UN Environmental Programme brought the discussion to the question of the capacity challenge for developing countries, which his organisation addressed by educating national officials and disaster experts through a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on “Disasters and Ecosystems”. Initially a smaller pilot project, MOOCs proved to be a capacity building measure that is cheap, easily scalable and that can reach a large and diverse group of stakeholders, Muralee explained.

The presentations were followed by a lively discussion between the audience and the speakers, including questions posed via Webex. One listener, for example, addressed the contradiction between open data and turning mobile phone-based information into a product. Other questions included the assessment of the impact of capacity building activities, and the architecture of private-public partnership frameworks for harnessing data for disaster risk management.


This PARIS21 seminar was born from the idea that the vast majority of disasters are related to extreme weather. It is therefore likely that disaster risks will increase in the future due to climate change. Indeed, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNIDSR) recently estimated that future losses caused by natural disasters are expected to amount to 314 billion USD annually, disproportionally affecting middle-income and developing countries.

Recognising the urgent need for developing countries in particular to adapt to this situation, the PARIS21 Secretariat decided to host a conversation on the contribution that new sources of data and innovative technologies, such as crowdsourcing, big data analysis, drones or geospatial imagery, can make to disaster risk management and adaptation.