“I’ve got three weeks to find sheet metal roofing for 66,000 families here in Nepal before monsoon season begins. And I’m not sure where best to get the items we need,” said the man leading the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) relief efforts. He has faced similar questions several times before. The difference this time is that I had immediate access to 28 years, and 300 million rows, of trade data the United Nations has collected to help inform international commerce and improve the lives of the world’s citizens.
What started out as a simple demonstration of the latest data visualization technologies on a big data source, called UN Comtrade, quickly evolved into an innovative new research tool. It has helped answer many questions that I would never have thought to use trade data to answer.
For example: How does Greece’s financial situation impact my country/organization? How can we identify risks to our supply chain in certain countries? Who are the best countries to source critical items from? How can I help economics, business and political science students better visualize the relationships and opportunities amongst the countries of the world?
Combining global trade data into one easily sorted and visualized location helps fill in many knowledge gaps. For instance, it is a challenge to research the trade of a country that does not report regularly. The nice thing about trade data is that is reports two sides of the story. So if one country does not provide reliable reporting, you can see what all the countries of the world report importing to or exporting from that country, down to specific categories of products. This “mirror” capability also reveals discrepancies in what a country claims to be importing and exporting, and what the rest of the world is reporting. This creates many interesting questions whose answers may be innocent, or not.
Trade data is unlike other data because of the relationships and stories that the data tells over time. It reveals insights about things we see and use every single day that could help advance society beyond the existing challenges and questions, if we would only take the time to interrogate it.
Within 60 seconds, I was able to tell my IOM friend that Nepal’s neighbor, India, was the world’s leading exporter of that particular product, and that Nepal was seventh in the world. In the end, 310,000 sheets of corrugated iron metal roofing were ordered quickly and strategically—with as much as possible sourced domestically—and distributed before the first rains of Nepal’s 2015 monsoon season fell on the victims of the earthquakes.
I-Sah Hsieh is the Global Manager of International Development at SAS where he helps development organizations apply advanced analytics, cloud and big data technologies to address complex global challenges in established and developing nations.