Big Data's International Influence

Can simple text messages alert a team halfway around the world that there may be a disease outbreak in the remote Sub-Saharan region? Could mobile payments help predict a possible coming food shortage?

While analysis of big data is nothing new for private companies and the government, the nonprofit sector's introduction to that technology and data could play a crucial role in many international development initiatives.

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum released a report on its many uses in the international community earlier this year entitled, "Big Data, Big Impact: New Possibilities for International Development." The report detailed how policy-makers, corporate leaders and development experts are just now realizing the potential applications for large amounts of data created by individuals who use GPS, social media, and mobile phones. Sources such as online or mobile financial transactions, social media traffic and GPS coordinates now generate over 2.5 quintillion bytes of so-called "big data" every day, and the growth of mobile data traffic in emerging markets is expected to double each year through 2015, according to the report. Plus, it's easier to link mobile-generated data to individuals.

It was mobile data that alerted researchers to potential health problems in the wake of Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute and Columbia University used mobile data patterns to understand the movement of refugees and the consequent health risks posed by these movements. By tracking the movement of nearly two million SIM cards, data was obtained on the outflow of people from Port-au-Prince following the earthquake. The researchers were able to analyze the destinations of over 600,000 people displaced from the city, and they made this information available to government and humanitarian organizations dealing with the crisis.

Big data and social media are used to spot food shortages around the world. Global Pulse, a United Nation's initiative to develop methods of harnessing data for public policy, found very strong correlations with food price inflation while researching the amount of food-related conversations on Twitter. "This information comes from two brand new sources: what people are doing and what they are saying," said Robert Kirkpatrick, director of Global Pulse. "As a government or aid agency, you might know that food prices are rising or rains aren't coming, but what if you could see where and how people are already changing their behavior and priorities where you put resources in response?"

However, as analysis and research with massive amounts of data has come into vogue, a major shortage of data-savvy talent is quickly becoming apparent. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates there will be an annual shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 graduates in deep analytical fields by 2018 in the United States alone. It is likely shortages in this field will be even more challenging in the social sector, which typically pays less than other industries.

"There's a deficiency," said Chris Wilson, vice president and counsel for TechAmerica and also staff director of the group's Big Data Commission. "There is a need for people with those types of degrees and multidisciplinary skills. There is certainly a need to be filled."

In the end, sharing and open participation by all sectors may be needed for big data to realize its full potential on the international front. "Development organizations can continue supporting governments and demonstrating both the public good and the business value that data philanthropy can deliver," the World Economic Forum report says. "And the private sector can move faster to create mechanisms for the sharing of data that can benefit the public. Despite the challenges and risks, the opportunities available to better serve individuals in emerging markets should outweigh these risks."


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