The Irishwoman using big data for the public good with the UN
Cork scientist builds big data solutions to help people after earthquakes and disease
Dr Marguerite Nyhan, originally from West Cork, now living in New York City, shares her experience of working as a Research Scientist at the United Nations.
Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Dr Marguerite Nyhan, originally from west Cork, now living in New York City, shares her experience of working as a research scientist at the United Nations.
When did you leave Ireland, and how did you end up in your current job?
I moved to the US in the summer of 2013. While I was studying for my PhD in Ireland, I was invited to work as a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. As an engineer, I found the opportunity to work at MIT hugely appealing. MIT is a fascinating place where people are constantly pushing the boundaries on ground-breaking science. People there are endlessly creative and curious.
While I was at MIT, I began using large digital datasets to study cities, understanding that mobile phone data from millions of people could be a powerful tool for designing more human-centric urban areas. As my research evolved, I moved to Harvard University and applied these digital representations of human mobility to environmental health problems. Later, when I was offered a position at the United Nations, I leapt at the opportunity to take what I had learned and apply it to humanitarian efforts.
Mobility information has incredible predictive power. You can see how people have been displaced by a natural disaster, hour by hour
I would say that at MIT I learned how things work. At Harvard, I learned how people work and at the UN, I learned how the world works. I also learned that our world is an incredibly complex place with many unsolvable problems but we can make significant progress in many areas.
Did you study in Ireland?
Yes - I studied Civil and Environmental Engineering in University College Cork. While I was there, I learned how to solve problems in a creative and technical manner, setting me up extremely well for my academic career. Following that, I pursued a PhD in Trinity College Dublin.
Tell us about your work
In a nutshell, I construct big data solutions to humanitarian problems. The group in which I work, UN Global Pulse, was created to accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies and data-based prediction in sustainable development and humanitarian efforts. UN Global Pulse has played a seminal role in the creation of a global movement around finding safe and responsible ways to use big data and artificial intelligence for the public good.
How is big data used in development and humanitarian work?
In a variety of ways - for example, with mobile phone data, you can see real-time patterns of mobility and the economic activity of populations in places where you would be lucky to get survey or census data more than once every few years.
Mobility information has incredible predictive power. You can see how people have been displaced by a natural disaster, hour by hour, and where they’re gathering in need of assistance. You can see when they’re migrating in response to the impacts of climate change, conflict or the economy. International agencies can then use this information to plan contingencies on the ground and distribute resources and aid.
When you combine mobility with other data such as weather and health outcomes, you can build epidemiological models that predict the time and location of outbreaks of diseases like dengue, influenza, malaria, even Ebola, allowing public health departments to improve prevention measures. With a risk map of malaria, you know where to alert clinics and restock supplies in pharmacies.
Recently our work has involved automating the development of maps of vast refugee camps in Africa, using satellite imagery and machine learning models. So, the projects I work on are extremely varied and challenging. I find it very interesting, from both a humanitarian and a scientific perspective.
What challenges do you face in your work?
Part of my work involves engaging data partners - from mobile operators to public health agencies, social media platform owners and satellite imagery providers. Even though their data can be essential to humanitarian work, access is often a major challenge. There have been many debates on privacy and the risks of misusing data. These are legitimate concerns, but the opportunity cost of not using data for the public good is often too high to ignore. There has to be accountability around non-use, not just accountability around misuse.
Wrongdoings reported in the future may involve the failure of companies and governments to use public data in humanitarian crises
From a humanitarian perspective, real-time mobility data can help you find people after an earthquake. From a sustainability perspective, there are many opportunities to serve the public good. Knowing how people move through a city can help municipal governments improve transportation systems, assess the dynamics of tourism, determine the locations for new schools or hospitals, and estimate pollution exposure.
At a time when there has been some bad press involving data privacy and the misuse of data, I believe that wrongdoings reported in the future may very well involve the failure of companies and governments to share and use public data for the good of humankind, in emergencies and in humanitarian crises prevention and response efforts.
The most challenging part of my job is ensuring that our theoretical work has real operational value. Data represents people, so we need to ensure that we don’t expose any vulnerabilities of the people we are trying to help. Moreover, if we’re making data-driven policy decisions, we must ensure that we are aware of the vulnerable people that our data may exclude - the people who do not own phones or are not online. We need to ensure that we do not leave anyone behind.
What is your day-to-day work like?
It’s an interesting time to be working at the UN. The Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, was an engineering professor before he pursued a career in politics and it now seems that there is a renewed focus on the use of emerging technologies in work across the UN. Recently, the General Assembly took place in New York. During that gathering of many of the world’s political and academic leaders, there were numerous high-level meetings at headquarters on the ethical and responsible use of new technologies, big data and artificial intelligence in development work.
I work at the UN headquarters in East Manhattan. Although every day is different, much of my time is spent researching problems, analysing data with a technical team, and reporting on this.
Next year, I will migrate back across the Atlantic to Ireland
Every day I spend a few hours reading - books, science journal articles and newspapers. It’s important for me to continually stay attuned to global affairs but I also love reading books and essays on philosophy and cognitive science. Writers who, I believe, have improved my understanding of the world include Steven Pinker, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The most recent books I’ve delved into include Jeffrey Sachs’ The Age of Sustainable Development and Nadia Murad’s The Last Girl. Every day, while I’m on the subway, I listen to global news and science podcasts.
I often travel internationally for work. This year I had missions and research meetings in Geneva, Moscow, Dhaka, Peru and Istanbul. I am also a scientist at Harvard and am affiliated with MIT, so I spend some of my time conducting research and lecturing in Boston.
Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?
I would have to say yes. I’ve been very fortunate to gain some invaluable experience abroad in both academia and at the UN. I really enjoy working in such diverse international environments here and I’m grateful to have opportunities to speak to and learn from people from all over the world on a daily basis.
What is it like living there?
New York is an amazing place to live. It’s a megacity full of immigrants of all nationalities. It is an epicentre for the arts and for culture, so it is wonderful to absorb as much of that as possible while I’m here. I live in Manhattan and I love exploring the neighbourhoods of New York on the weekends - there is always somewhere new and interesting to see.
Is there anything you miss about living in Ireland?
New York is very far removed from the beauty of west Cork and its wonderful sense of calm. I miss my parents’ farmhouse in Kenneigh, the green fields that surround it and the comhrá over tea at the kitchen table. I miss my parents and having my family and friends from home around me. I wish I could share my experiences with them.
What are your plans?
Next year, I will migrate back across the Atlantic to Ireland. I’m going full circle from my undergraduate years in UCC, when I spent many enjoyable years tending to lecture notes and lab reports in the Boole Library. Soon, I will be at the top of the lecture hall putting chalk to the board as a faculty member in Engineering. UCC has an impressive and vibrant scientific community and I am looking forward to adding my own ideas into the mix. It may take me a while to settle back into life at home but it will be wonderful to be nearer to my family and friends again. And I’ve no doubt in my mind that it’s the right move to make.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do.