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How can big data help to achieve Sustainable Development Goals

Data about the world we have is often indicative of a rather positive direction. Yet our overreliance on data makes the areas in which the data is lacking more problematic. In that, it is usually missing in cases of the most vulnerable people and so we cannot prioritize or even target them. NGOs and governments cannot go about this by themselves and the private sector has to come to aid which will be a win-win for everyone – the planet, the people as well as the profits. What are the main challenges of big data?

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, in his latest book Enlightenment now, says the world is becoming a better place. That is, despite what we might think after watching the evening news. The violence is on the decline, global poverty is disappearing, and literacy (even the gender parity in education) is becoming a norm around the world. “The data does not lie,” he says, and the world is undoubtedly improving. All we need to do is to just “look at the data instead of headlines”.

There are two problems with the rosy picture about the state of the world. First, which Pinker himself acknowledges, is the fact our world is not improving in all measures equally. Global warming and rise in authoritarian politics, for instance, are a gradually worsening problem. Paul Collier, the economist from Oxford, acknowledges the upwards trend of the world’s society but argues there is a “bottom billion” of people who are not getting better. At all. In fact, they are worse off than they were, and the situation for many is (probably) not going to be improved anytime soon. These are people in unstable societies ravaged by conflict, violence, lack of food and incompetent officials.

The second is, what is called a “data deprivation problem”. Even though the data is becoming ubiquitous in many sectors, it is far from universally spread. The problems are the most visible in the international development sector. Operating with high-quality development data is essential for policy-making, planning, resource allocation, and public service delivery. Yet, the most vulnerable people are usually invisible to data. Without this knowledge, the development project managers are blind to the needs of many. And if they are successful, how do they know it?

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the answer

The international community is aware of these problems. The UN accepted the Sustainable Development Goals which are designed to improve the situation. There are 17 goals and 169 targets which aim to solve different world problems. If everything goes well by 2030 we will get rid of global poverty, stop global warming or achieve gender equality.

As it may well seem, this is far from easy. This should not be a responsibility of only governments and NGOs. Businesses have the potential to help, improve their offering as well as their profits.

SDGs can improve profits

Sustainable development can make a good business case. A number of reports, from Deloitte, WWF, Business & Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC) and the likes, have covered the potential profitability of achieving SDGs by 2030. BSDC has found that achieving SDGs in just four sectors – food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being—would create $12 trillion of new market opportunities by 2030 compared with business-as-usual scenario.

It can bring new opportunities and big efficiency gains. It will, admittedly, come at some R&D cost, but it is a comparatively small price to pay to be ahead of the pack. It is likely there will be legislation (in the EU anyway) that will require companies to go green(er). As the last EP elections showed, there is a Europe-wide public demand for this. When this happens companies will want to be prepared. But sustainability will not only drive innovation but also improve reputation, as several global ecologically conscious brands show. Think Patagonia, Toms or Lush. Customers are willing to reward ecological action.

With a reputation for sustainability, companies attract and retain customers, employees, and investors. There is a huge potential reward in the form of new employment opportunities, particularly in the developing world. Achieving Global Goals could create 380 million new jobs by 2030, almost 90 percent of them in developing countries.

The business case for big data in development

But one of the most impactful thing companies can do to help achieve SDGs is to use their big data. Because big data and machine learning are at the forefront of potential to help achieve SDGs. At least 20 billion devices are now connected to the internet and the volume of data captured by business is surging. This is generating new development opportunities, from modeling malaria using mobile phone data to hooking smallholder farmers up to IBM’s hyper-local weather forecasting tool Deep Thunder or driving down electricity use through smart metering. These technologies have much wider potential, though. Deep Thunder is already a well-refined tool which in the US predicts where highly localized weather events can cause outages.

The potential benefits are immense. Take the ability of algorithms to assess environmental risks in real time and accurately predict the future. For instance the interactive water risk mapping tool developed by The World Resources Initiative. It calculates the overall, as well as partial, water risk anywhere on the planet. This is based on a variety of the factors which users can select – all this online and free. Based on the changes of water risk this tool can provide forecasts based on several scenarios.

The challenges of big data

The challenges of using big data for development are mainly cultural: uneasiness about sharing the data. Privacy is an obvious cause of concern, but distrust among competitors is another obstacle. Even when the data is accessible there is a scarcity in data scientists skilled in the field. Which raises their value and many NGOs and often even governments are not able to afford them. This limits all stakeholders from taking full advantage of this offer. Paul Rogers, GE’s chief development officer, told the IGEL conference that right now, “only about one-half of 1% of the world’s data is being analyzed.” The other 99.5% falls into the category of “dark data.”

When big data is used for internal cases after it has been cleared and refined, it is fairly easy to use it for development as well. And just 1% improvement in efficiency (achieved by big data) in five of today’s major industries – aviation, healthcare, power, rails and oil, and gas – could save $276 billion.

The bottom line of big data for development

The bottom line of this article is this. If we want to achieve greater sustainability, we will need the private sector to play a bigger role. One of the potentially most impactful ways to do that is through utilizing big data.

Instarea is can be a useful partner

We, at Instarea, have useful experience in big data management and monetization. If you come from a data-heavy industry and you see the potential of big data you can contact us on and we can help you monetize the big data and help save this planet.

Want to hear more about this topic? Watch our interview with Lucia Kišš, director of SlovakAid, in which we discuss the role of big data in fighting poverty and achieving sustainable development.

Martin Brezina

Business development associate @ Instarea

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