Using digital technology to scan potential for change in sustainable development

Digital technology has the potential to advance the sustainable development agenda in many different ways. IIED research investigated how it could be used to track social media conversations and understand better the attitudes and concerns around specific development topics. The data gathered could help to inform strategies for influencing policy change.

March 2020 - March 2022
Tom Bigg

Director, Strategy and Learning



A woman looks down at a mobile phone in her hand.

Woman farmer in Sirajganj, Bangladesh, on her phone (Photo: Sayma Islam/WorldFish via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Internet access is exploding around the world. In the 10 years up to 2021, the proportion of people around the world with access to the internet grew from 33% to 63%, and by 2022 the number of active social media users hit 4.62 billion.   

The growth in digital media provides new opportunities for giving power to people made vulnerable through poverty and climate change, enhancing livelihoods and for predicting future trends in development. 

But it’s also possible to perpetuate inequalities if digital access is unequal and inequitable, making the situation worse for people already marginalised in society. 

This project explored different ways digital technology could be used to advance the sustainable development agenda for the benefit of everyone. It chose to focus on understanding how to use artificial intelligence to inform more relevant and resonant policy influencing strategies. 

What did IIED do? 

1. Research and scoping

An in-house digital sustainability scoping workshop in March 2020 identified eight themes for potential investment and future work. Of these eight themes, four were chosen to be explored in more detail and some initial papers were commissioned on digital in supply chains; digital communication and sustainable development; digital, climate finance and community empowerment; and digital horizon scanning for sustainable development

An IIED briefing, ‘Digital technologies for an inclusive, low-carbon future that puts people first’, was published from one of these reports, arguing that the use of technology in climate finance needed an integrated, human-centric approach in order to effectively target funds at the local level.

The paper provided an overview of the pattern of technology development to date, potential pathways to change and recommendations for approaching new technology as an integrated system, not as a service.  


It concluded that local socioeconomic and cultural conditions should be the starting point for this new system, and that developers must engage local stakeholders from the outset. 

2. Focus on predicting future trends 

We chose to focus on predicting future trends in policymaking We wanted to use artificial intelligence (AI) tools to analyse social media and conventional media in different countries, with the aim of understanding the way that topics linked to sustainability are perceived in those countries.  

We also wanted to explore whether these AI tools could help us predict the response of identified stakeholders to particular policy interventions.   

These monitoring tools have the potential to enhance the impact of our work but we needed to generate ‘proof of concept’ before looking to scale up the approach. 

3. Pilot project 

In March 2021, working with Marble Global, we examined how to tap into this opportunity to understand the digital conversations happening in key countries where we work and focused on identifying the issues that people care about most.  

This led to an assessment of digital users’ perceptions of beneficial land use in Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia.  

Marble Global used text mining and content analysis methods to capture relevant social media conversations in our target geographies, and statistical weighting to establish the relative importance assigned to each case.  

The findings showed that Twitter users in all three countries were more likely to prioritise food security over ecosystem conservation. This is the kind of information that could be used to shape influencing approaches and messaging. 

Barbara Adolph, senior associate in IIED’s Natural Resources research group, explained: “Our project was looking at land use trade-offs between forests and crop land. We were exploring this in Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia. We knew that perceptions of these issues were likely to be very different between the countries and we wanted to assess how the general public were expressing their views on these issues.  

“Working with Marble Global, we developed a ‘relative importance index’ to help us tease out the different nuances we were looking for, think through what we actually needed and see what could be done to dig deeper into this debate.” 

Challenges and recommendations  

The pilot project highlighted general challenges from which we drew recommendations for future work: 

  • The digital divide: this affects not just access to digital technology but also representation in research. It is essential to engage local researchers in digital media projects. 
  • Accountability: digital media research is a relatively new field and must be open to scrutiny. It is important to publish work openly and make data sets and methods available. Clarity and transparency are key to inspiring confidence in the validity of the research; without this, the findings will not influence policy change. 
  • A changing media landscape: the results of one-off research projects are static and quickly become outdated. A regular stream of related information is more effective and enables more credible analysis for informing decisions on actions to take. 

The paper also identified opportunities for further research into three different ways to use digital media intelligence, looking at trade-offs (as seen by social media users), influencers – identifying the key opinion formers in a particular area – and assessing the visibility of priority topics on social media and the potential to play a role in important conversations.

Additional resources

Reimagining the climate finance system with digital technology, Sam Greene, Marek Soanes and Anna Walnycki (2019), IIED Briefing 

Automation and inequality: the changing world of work in the global South, Andrew Norton (2017), IIED Issue paper