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Our networked society is changing the way we live, says United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the International Telecommunication Union's ‘fast-forward progress' report which highlights various ways to leverage technology to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and inequality. The report provides insights into the risks and opportunities in using ICT to achieve the goals, such as the broad benefits of big data.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established by the UN in order to apply humankind's knowledge, ingenuity and wealth to end "unacceptable human suffering and deprivation" experienced by millions of people around the world. The goals provide a framework for transforming development to ensure it is both more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable, operating within planetary boundaries.

"The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes the great potential of global connectivity to spur human progress. It challenges us to ensure universal and affordable internet access for all," says the Secretary-General in his opening statement in the report. "This report offers insights into the risks and opportunities in using Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals."

The report was written as a collaborative effort by 29 UN programs, specialized agencies and international organizations. It begins with harrowing statistics the world faces today concerning inequality and poverty; for example, over 700 million people continue to battle extreme poverty, living on less than $1.90 per day. Information and communications technologies have the "potential to enable new poverty solutions and amplify the positive results of existing efforts," the repot says.

Other reports by UNDP and the World Bank have determined that ICTs have transformed peoples' lives for the better, contributing to sustainable development in areas such as health, climate, education and disaster preparedness. Mobile phones and internet services, for instance, are "enabling people, from all segments of society, to benefit from development." The reports argue, however, that technologies can often "widen disparities" between rich and poor, women and men, and disadvantaged communities and everyone else. There is "evidence of both trends."

Less than half the world's population uses the internet, according to ITU's report: just 25 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa, and 42 percent in Asia and the Pacific and the Arab States. Therefore, those without access to technology miss out on education and desirable career opportunities. But access to ICTs is not enough to bridge the gap, the report claims. Policies and interventions must also ensure that those furthest behind are empowered to benefit from ICTs.

The power of big data
Big data is highlighted in the report as a powerful ally in the fight against poverty. Many of the disparities that divide people remain hidden due to a lack of data, according to the report. Poor and marginalized people are among the most likely to be missed by official statistics. To improve the accuracy of statistics, policymakers are "turning increasingly to ICTs to facilitate big data solutions."

Big data solutions, the report claims, are important to reach the furthest behind and understand who and why people are left behind from the benefits of social and economic progress. Data can be obtained from social media and geospatial data sensors to fill in SDG data gaps in order to deliver more accurate poverty-reduction interventions.

For example, UN Global Pulse, a flagship innovation initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General on big data, discovered that mobile phone credit purchases (e.g. SIM cards) correspond closely to household data. In addition, UNDP, UN Global Pulse and the National Statistics Office have been gathering mobile phone data in Sudan in an effort to monitor socioeconomic behavior as a proxy for poverty in the country.

Emerging organizations such as The Next 3B are focusing on ways in which the internet can be harnessed to drive positive impact and reduce inequality. Chairman of the Next 3B, Rangu Salgame, says his initiative focuses on delivering connectivity to the developing world to bring about "social and economic change." The initiative has an upcoming trial in Rwanda that aims to "bring digital tools and smartphones for empowering women and entrepreneurs."

Guatemala is benefiting from ICT by using mobile phones to train more than 300 aspiring nurses via "distance education", helping to reduce a critical lack of skills. The ITU report highlights: "Telemedicine is increasingly making medical advice and treatment options available to people irrespective of their geographical location. Health platforms powered by mobile phones, for example, are used by frontline health workers to diagnose and treat pneumonia and pre-eclampsia, with the latter being the second-leading cause of maternal deaths."

The power of helping people understand and use information is demonstrated in Nigeria, where the country's SMDG Information System, launched in 2015, uses geo-referenced data from mobile phones to provide location-specific information about government services, environmental challenges, water access points and other useful tips. ITU's report stresses how the online system "builds evidence of what works" and "enables civil society to see results and hold government accountable."

The various ways in which ICT is having a positive effect on productivity and innovation can be found all over the world, from the Middle East to South Asia. Saudi Arabian farmers now rely on technology to distribute scarce irrigated water for wheat cultivation, ITU reports. In Bangladesh, there are an increasing number of women starting productive phone service businesses enabling them to earn a comfortable living while also expanding access to mobile phones in the developing nation.

In Pakistan, biometric technology ensures that women receive their cash transfers directly, empowering them to decide how their money is spent. In areas of sub-Saharan Africa, UNDP is working with farmers and SMBs to use ICT for training purposes, expert advice and agricultural inputs. The aim, according to ITU's report, is to help raise agricultural productivity and enable small producers to build agricultural value chains and meet quality standards.

Mobile phones play an important role in the success of utilizing big data, particularly during disease outbreaks, the report adds. For example, big data from mobile phones can help track the movement of people in places like West Africa where the Ebola crisis unfolded to "prevent, predict and prepare" for the spread of deadly diseases. Mobile phones were essential to providing accurate payments to those who provided health services on the frontlines of the Ebola response, enabling workers to meet their own needs.

The importance of mobile phones was also illustrated in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the country wreaking havoc. UNDP partnered with private telecom companies in the island nation to implement emergency cash for work schemes for debris management in poor communities. Those who paid through mobile phones have continued to benefit from mobile banking, the report says, although the scheme has since finished.

"Without action, the digital divide will continue to drive the inequalities that separate people, groups and countries, drawing new forms of exclusion, defined by varying access to broadband, computers and smartphones," ITU warns in the report. Harnessing technology to eradicate poverty and inequality, it adds, must come from governments, businesses and community groups working together to fund strategies that harness the potential of ICTs to eradicate poverty and inequality.