CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — As societies continue to grow, they make room to accommodate the impact of various changes like the industrial revolution and the digital revolution. This is the age of the data revolution. From scientific research and personalized medicine to marketing, a number of fields are hopping on the big data train. Social and economic development are no strangers to the need for data.
Policies and programs need to be evaluated at regular time points to ascertain that money is being put to good use. How can funding needs to be devoted to anti-poverty campaigns be determined if the numbers for people living in poverty are nebulous? How can officials decide how many vaccinations to purchase if they do not have a clear idea of the number of live births in a region and the number of people who have been vaccinated already? How can they decide whether to increase the salary of teachers or hire more teachers if they do not know what impact each one has?
It is questions like these that policy makers face on a regular basis. Big data can provide the foundation to guide good policy. However, this can be more challenging than it appears. Particularly in developing countries, there are large gaps in the required information and even where there are records, they might only date to the recent past. Finally, there is the question of how to use and analyze this large amount of information.
The trouble with big data is that it can easily be misinterpreted and manipulated to fit into a biased framework. This makes the act of asking the right question and using the right statistical tools invaluable.
Innovative nonprofits and for-profits are trickling into this space to meet the demand for data and statistics. The Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century, or PARIS21, was co-founded by the U.N., the European Commission, the OECD, the IMF and the World Bank. PARIS21 facilitates statistical capacity building and better use of statistics Under the Informing a Data Revolution Project. PARIS21 has recently published a roadmap outlining the “goals, activities and resources needed for developing countries to achieve sustainable development goals.”
Companies like Revolution Analytics take a stab at the more technical aspects of data analysis. It provides software programming solutions and advisory services on how to use statistical methods to handle big data.
The tech giant, IBM, is also seeing potential in this space. IBM has donated some of its big data and analytics technology to Union for International Cancer Control. The goal is to collect data on the incidence of cancer by building cancer registries in low and middle income countries. Such registries and information can guide the development and adoption of cancer treatment, prevention and awareness strategies.
Big data has a lot to contribute to development. Expert analysis and guidance in asking meaningful questions can help milk this data for all its value. This has to be carefully balanced, however, with regulations to limit its use for inappropriate purposes. As the big data field grows, policy, regulation and laws have to grow and adapt with it. Government and societies can move with the data revolution, or they run the risk of being left behind.
– Mithila Rajagopal