LIVE FROM UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY (UNGA), NEW YORK: Representatives from the mobile industry and relief agencies called on governments to embrace big data as a means of tackling a range of global challenges.

In a special session of UNGA, Orange Sierra Leone CEO Aminata Kane highlighted how the operator “worked with the private sector to generate big data”, during the Ebola crisis of 2014 “to identify trouble spots”.

Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke outlined similar work performed by the operator in Pakistan involving analysis of the impact of population movements on the emergence of Dengue virus epidemics.

And GSMA director general Mats Granryd (pictured) highlighted the work of operators in the association’s Big Data For Social Good (BD4SG) initiative, which is helping the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo anticipate pollution issues (via Telefonica), and working in Southeast Asia to examine the impact of population movements on the spread of drug resistant malaria (with Telenor).

“To truly maximise the power of big data, policymakers, international organisations, civil society and industry must come together to ensure collaboration and scalable impact,” Granryd said.

Ministers from Norway, Belgium and Sierra Leone used the session to underline their countries’ support for embracing big data from mobile networks (and other sources) to help curb the spread of infectious diseases, and assist those caught up in disasters and environmental crises.

However, speakers also warned difficulties working with some governments is hampering effective deployments of big data solutions in such scenarios.

Cynthia McCaffrey, director of the Office of Global Innovation at UNICEF, said it took the organisation 33 weeks to get the necessary agreements in place when it first started using big data to tackle the Ebola crisis: “We have managed to reduce that to eight weeks, but that’s still not fast enough when you’re facing an emergency,” she said.

Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data CEO Claire Melamed laid responsibility at the door of politicians, stating they “need to make this happen” and the industry is “finally starting to have conversations that are political”.

Robert Kirkpatrick, director of UN Global Pulse, also criticised inaction by some governments, which he said has resulted in “preventable harms that are not being prevented”. But he also praised the mobile industry’s leadership role in big data and called for other sectors to follow suit.