5 ways that big data is being harnessed for the greater good

Until now, big data has primarily been seen as an opportunity for big businesses. It’s a way to better understand consumers in order to more effectively target them with products and services or it can provide insights into where a company is inefficient. In fact, according to a report from McKinsey Consulting, putting data at the centre of marketing and sales decisions can improve Marketing Return on Investment (MROI) by 15 to 20 per cent.

As corporations begin to understand what data can do, however, many outside of big business are asking how it can be applied to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

In November, 2014, a group of experts, commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, presented their findings on how to bring about a data revolution in sustainable development.

According to their report: “There is an urgent need to mobilise the data revolution for all people and the whole planet in order to monitor progress, hold governments accountable and foster sustainable development…This in turn enables individuals, public and private institutions, and companies to make choices that are good for them and for the world they live in.”

It’s clear that governments, non-government organisations (NGOs) and businesses are starting to take notice of the huge opportunities big data presents, so with this in mind, we look at some key trends in data analytics that could make a big difference to the lives of people around the world.

1. Urbanisation

Today, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas and this is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. According to projections by the United Nations, there could be another 2.5 billion people living in cities by 2050.

And while living in cities opens up new employment opportunities and access to services for people who previously did not have them, it also represents a major challenge to infrastructure. Particularly in the developing world, as cities grow and converge, this becomes a political and administrative issue, and this is where data analytics can lend a hand.

As part of a study on urban expansion, The World Bank mapped urbanisation across the East Asia and Pacific region using satellite imagery. The dataset includes data on all 869 urban areas in the region with populations over 100,000. And now The World Bank is running a competition to find the best way to visualise this treasure trove of information. Policymakers will use the best ideas to analyse the progress of urbanisation in the region and ultimately help plan cities better, for the benefit of the people who live in them.

2. Open data and crowdsourcing

Opening up data sources to anyone who is interested can be a highly effective way to get answers to difficult questions, as the World Bank is betting with their data visualisation competition. This is a trend that is increasingly being used across different disciplines and sectors with some fascinating results.

Kaggle, for example, is an online platform where data science amateurs and professionals get together to compete and solve problems. Current challenges on the site include a competition for predicting ocean health by measuring plankton populations, while another asks for help in forecasting the use of a city bike-share system.

3. Putting business techniques to work for NGOs

DataKind is an organisation that aims to use data science to solve the world’s most challenging humanitarian problems. Launched in 2011, its headquarters are in New York and it has chapters in the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Singapore.

project in the UK, for example, used analysis of text data to help Buttle UK, an organisation that supports disadvantaged families. It took data on family finances, family size and type, dates and locations, and the type of support requested, to better understand the reasons why certain families were struggling. The insights allowed Buttle UK to better understand common sequences of requests and predict which families were likely to require the most support, thus allowing them to better serve those in need.

In Singapore, data scientists from DataSpark, a company that analyses anonymised mobile location data to provide insights for industries and governments, are working with a global NGO to look at the best strategy for reaching out to members and donors. By leveraging techniques typically used in business and marketing, they are able to find optimal ways to encourage people to be active within their communities and use social networks to identify key influencers for the cause.

According to John Curry, Product Manager for DataSpark: “We’re going beyond the hype phase of big data. In business, we’ve learned a lot of hard lessons and now there will be a big transfer from business to NGOs.”

4. Infectious diseases

Data can be a powerful weapon in the fight against infectious diseases. In Singapore, DataSpark experts have been able to use anonymised mobile phone data to look at people’s mobility patterns, such as their commute to and from work, and link it to the places where the dengue virus is active. By understanding when and where people are most exposed to dengue, the Government can make more informed decisions about how to minimise risk.

In a project in the US, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco have been working to use data from Google Earth to predict the areas where malaria is most likely to be transmitted. If successful, healthcare workers would be able to overlay their own data about occurrences of malaria on top of satellite data on weather, revealing the relationship between disease transmission and environmental factors. That way, they would have the information they need to take appropriate action – such as spraying insecticide and distributing mosquito nets and antimalarial drugs – to protect the people who are most at risk.

5. Improving healthcare systems

The application of data can also improve health outcomes in other ways. The popularity of fitness gadgets, such as Jawbone and Fitbit is testament to the fact that many of us are trying to make improvements to our health by monitoring our diet and exercise more carefully.

However, what if the data contained on these trackers was not just for our own personal edification, but was shared with healthcare providers so they could better predict what kind of care people will require and when? According to a report by ABI Research, by 2019, spending on collecting the data from wearable devices will reach $52 million. Much of this growth will be driven by insurance companies, who can use the data improve actuarial models and even to help fight fraud.

Applying big data to health problems can help healthcare providers and hospitals predict usage of medical services, for example, by understanding when a peak in flu cases might hit. It can also predict which patients – based on capturing their past habits – are most likely to use medical services in the future, which could help improve patient care and manage resources more efficiently in the long run.