Photo: UNDP Bangladesh/Fahad Kaizer


In February 2020, former entrepreneur Reina Otsuka was gearing up to start managing an exciting new project: Enhanced Data Solution for People, Planet and Prosperity (ESP). The goal of the new initiative was ambitious: to combine UNDP’s untapped goldmine of data collected during climate and environment projects with advanced analytics to generate actionable insights and business intelligence for programming and policy decisions. Incepted by Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, Director of UNDP’s Nature Climate and Energy (NCE) Team within the Bureau of Policy and Programme Support (BPPS), carried out by Otsuka and then NCE Senior Economist Babatunde Abidoye, ESP had the potential to put existing data to work in a variety of new and different ways, exponentially amplifying UNDP’s impact on the ground.

What’s more, ESP was supported by Digital Sprints, a program that had been recently initiated by UNDP’s Chief Digital Office. ESP was one of six teams selected to receive funding and mentorship from technology experts and UNDP business unit heads after undergoing a week-long ‘bootcamp.’ The aim of the Sprints program was to engender an agile, digital way of working to effectively and quickly develop innovative solutions to thorny problems.

Then COVID-19 changed everything. As the unprecedented scope of the crisis became clear, suddenly climate change wasn’t the most urgent issue on the table anymore. 

At its most fundamental, ESP’s mission was to consolidate data sources in order to surface insights. The theory behind the project illustrates a larger truth about the role data can play in impactful decision making. In the past, development interventions have largely been based on general statistics data – or sometimes even subjective, qualitative insights. But we now understand that with advancements in big data and new means of analysis (such as machine learning and Artificial Intelligence), we are able to understand problems at a much more granular level, geographically and between disaggregated groups of people. Programs that address a problem from a holistic perspective have a better chance of delivering long-lasting, wide-ranging impact.

Realizing that their goal – a consolidated home for UNDP’s myriad data – would be beneficial to many more challenges than just climate change, the team put their agile way of working into play. When the Chief Digital Officer, Robert Opp, asked the leaders of UNDP’s Global Policy Network whether it was possible to prepare a single data platform to address the socio-economic challenges of COVID-19, Kurukulasuriya knew it was – and he quickly volunteered the ESP team. Leveraging the resources of the Digital Sprints program, Kurukulasuriya, Otsuka, and Abidoye pivoted, applying their idea to help governments address COVID response.

The team set to work on the new platform in May 2020. After conducting a virtual design thinking workshop with key technical experts across the Global Policy Network within two days, the team presented a concept note to UNDP leadership within a week. A task team was convened, bringing in colleagues from different parts of the organization that were already active in data initiatives: Otsuka leading the team as a Product Manager, data experts such as Abidoye from NCE, Admir Jahic from the Human Development Report Office, Corrado Scognamilo from the Crisis Bureau, Serge Kapito from the SDG Integration Team, and data lead Gayan Peiris from CDO were brought on board to oversee development of the platform. Jennifer Colville from the Innovation Team and visualization expert Naledi Hollbruegge joined along the way, creating a healthy tension between traditional data experts and innovative data initiatives.

Energized by the urgency of the crisis, and with full support from UNDP executive members, the cross-functional team together with technical experts across the GPN worked at a breakneck speed. After acquiring the URL, they developed a working prototype in just one month. The team took a classic agile product development approach, Otsuka says, running weekly sprints, working with vendors to rapidly design low-fidelity products, and testing how a platform might look and how data would be visualized with users and stakeholders. By the end of August, after less than three months of working, they had built an actual website connected to a backend.

The platform, eventually named UNDP Data Futures Platform, allows users to quickly understand myriad perspectives on a single issue, by serving as the single source of truth for data collected from UNDP, other UN agencies, governments, trusted development partners, and the public record. The platform takes in data from these sources and either publishes it for advanced users to leverage, or visualizes it in a way that is accessible to everyone. 

Data lead Gayan Peiris says there’s a lot of technical work that went into the platform, including creating automated pipelines to grab data from sources when it becomes available. The platform’s team also reverse-engineers studies and reports produced by UNDP and other UN agencies, taking raw data and absorbing it into the platform, so it can be analyzed and made available to the public. Data Futures’ first big win was a country report for South Africa, assessing the in-crisis impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report suggested high-level preliminary policy recommendations based on desk research, interviews with dozens of stakeholders and impact assessment questionnaires. 

After the beta launch, the platform was handed over to the SDG Integration team due to its neutral position within the Global Policy Network. Coincidentally, one of the ESP members, Babatunde Abidoye, was appointed as Policy Advisor within the unit, and became the custodian of the platform. He was tasked with providing quality assurance to data contents which will be sourced from country offices, regional bureaus and across the Global Policy Network. In partnership with Microsoft, the team also built up a more robust data backend.  

Data Futures represents a great leap forward for digital transformation toward a Next Generation #NextGEN UNDP, in terms of data-driven policy support and innovative ways of working – it just wasn’t the one Reina Otsuka predicted at the start of 2020. But now that Data Futures has successfully taken flight, Otsuka can turn her attention back to a familiar subject: ESP. She now covers a wider mandate as Digital Innovation Specialist in the NCE team, and has moved on to build a data pipeline for the NCE team, preparing for a Nature, Climate, and Energy portfolio-wide digital transformation and data-driven decision making culture. 

With Data Futures as a foundation, ESP and any new data initiative has what it needs to start having real impact. The architecture is there – now the team is ready to start collecting data from the ground to be visualized and used for projects and policy.