Earlier this year, I traveled to Colombia to join a group of data scientists and practitioners at Datafestin CartagenaI went on behalf of the Policy Strategy Group, a team I am on at the United Nations to add value around Technology and Entrepreneurship. Here’s a bit about my time there:  

Data is all around us.

Every keystroke creates data, every motion of our body creates data, hell, the changes of our heartbeats are data. With so much available you’d think we’re doing productive things with data, but many people and institutions still struggle to understand and utilize this data.

Datafest was a place to share best practices for utilizing data. There was a particular message towards open data and shared data stores–right up my alley as I want to figure out how open data can propel the UN forward.

Like any conference, there were a bunch of fancy titles, many cool folks (a few boogey people too), and a diversity of men/women/young/old. Though, I did note a majority of the room were from the ‘Global North.’

**Diversity problems aside**, the event was a smash hit. I learned a bunch about how folks are using BigData to create tools and products that promote social progress. 

In Buenos Aires, the government is supporting local entrepreneurship. They’ve mapped the most effective ways to do it and in our conversations, often pointed to Israel as the example to learn from. Ground up innovation-local education, local production, and local development. In fact, one of the groups they work with has developed the largest tool using BigData & they’re wondering why private sector players have not picked it up and built on it.  In fact, they’re urging private sector to do it. 

It’s not everyday you see Government look at Industry and yell, SPEED UP!

Mitch Toomey Speech
Mitchell Toomey speech

I was most excited to meet more of the UN Millennium Campaign team. PSG works to advise MyWorld2015, a UNMC program. It would be impossible to achieve anything without the hard work and creativity of those folks at UNMC.  

Samsung VR Headset

UNMC has many players, including Mitch Toomey & team who have recently taken on Virtual Reality Technology as a means of injecting people into the dire situations of human experiences in places like a Syrian refugee camp.  

While I was out there I got the chance to play with the VR Tech (powered by Samsung). In fact, we hosted our own UN event and I had the opportunity to share the technology with people who came to see it. Nearly everyone in attendance (boozy and not) joined our table to learn more about VR. People were fascinated that the United Nations was doing such a project. And they were more excited by the technology itself– it made people emotion after just a few minutes. They got it! They understood how difficult life was like through a headset. Some called the headset a ‘Emotion Engine.’

This was especially exciting for me because I’m all about innovation & technology and being able to educate people on how the United Nations is using it–well, that’s just a treat. To be honest,  I didn’t know we were using VR headsets at the UN to help bring understanding and information to lay-eyes. We must do better in making the UN a flat organization, that’s for sure, but lapses of information aside, this is still tremendous progress and innovation- from any organization, but especially one with red-tape.

Hangin’ with the Mayor of Cartagena of Castle San Felippe

Cartagena seemed especially supportive of innovation and technology in its city. The mayor came out. He didn’t speak any English so I had the opportunity to converse in Spanish with him. He was very impressed with my Spanish and invited me back to Cartagena to see how his city grows over time.

I’m excited to return.

Cartagena, Colombia is a unique city with a lot to offer. The people of the city are a beautiful people and remind me of the folks back home in India. They’re also highly motivated to innovate and with strong support systems around them with cities like Bogota, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City, I think they are building a strong case for success. As for the rest of the world, Datafest brought together many unique individuals. I’m interested to see what projects and programs they create and carry forward.

My biggest takeaway was that having data is one thing, but knowing what to do with it and creating the tools to make it useful to everyday people is the challenge. That’s something I’ll remain conscious about.


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