Where big data was once a buzzword for marketing, organizations are now using it to elevate social wellness. The United Nations recently released a report highlighting over 200 projects that use big data to meet public needs from earthquake response to improving healthcare. The goal is to show public and private sectors problems big data can help solve.

“How rapidly are different communities recovering from that disaster? How many jobs has that new program created?” Advanced data analytics can answer these questions raised by director Robert Kirkpatrick of UN Global Pulse in seconds.

Big data is a network of information that people generate when they use Internet-connected devices like a smartphone or laptop to browse, shop, and interact with others. This data can be age, gender, or location; it can also include characteristics of our social and economic activities. Cumulative data can accurately portray the profile of a group of people or entire communities.

The United Nations Global Pulse initiative works to promote using big data and analytics for sustainable development and humanitarian action.

“Data derived from mobile phone usage is among the richest data sources about population well-being,” said director Kirkpatrick. For instance, mobile data can indicate real-time population mobility during a disaster. The UN report illustrates how this has been used to support humanitarian works.

One project was addressing dengue fever in Pakistan; the goal was to use historical data to help authorities improve its national response mechanism. The country’s leading mobile operator provided cellular data from 40 million subscribers during a 2013 endemic. This gave data scientists relevant information to derive a model that can accurately predict health emergencies weeks in advance.

In 2015, big data also helped minimize the earthquake impact in Nepal. Data networks were already being implemented inside the country prior to the earthquake. Following the disaster, international non-profit organization Flowminder used local call data to quickly map population movement and deliver data reports about affected schools, hospitals, and homes. The reports were used by UN World Food Program and relief organizations to efficiently distribute supplies and provide timely assistance. It was a project success that made many people realize how big data can decrease earthquake impact.

Microsoft, as well, works with nonprofit organizations and NGOs around the world to use data technologies to support their missions—be it disaster relief, refugee support, healthcare service, or education. As the developer of Microsoft Azure, a leading cloud platform in the industry, the company provides humanitarian groups data analytics and cloud computing resources so they can develop better solutions.

The nonprofits we serve are inspiring, said Mary Snapp, corporate Vice President and Head of Microsoft Philanthropies.

In Argentina, for example, a local nonprofit organization (CONIN) uses Microsoft Azure to map child nutrition needs by region and provide at-risk families with better nutrition, education, and medical needs. Another project involved Partners In Health (PIH), an international nonprofit that delivers critical health services worldwide. By using Azure, staff there are able to communicate via a reliable server, model complex healthcare scenarios, and mobilize experts and caregivers to where they’re needed.

Other startups like Cloud to Street have made it their mission to create big data solutions for the public. Founded by Bessie Schwarz and Beth Tellman, Cloud to Street has developed algorithms to map floodplains and identify vulnerable populations. They combine flood history, terrain data, community characteristics, and live satellite information to predict how a region will be impacted by flood.

The founders explain that the goal is to provide government agencies and relief organizations scientific and up-to-date information on flooding disaster to ensure that appropriate measures are taken.

Part of that involves collecting 20 years of flood event data into a single dataset that a machine learning system can read and use to identify characteristics that make an area prone to flooding; e.g. low slope, low elevation, and a high percentage of impermeable surface. The other part is gathering public cellphone data to identify people would be most affected by flood. So far, algorithms have found that age, gender, and income are all correlated factors.

“Identifying things that make someone more vulnerable to experiencing loss helps us prioritize resources for aid,” said Bessie. Her hope is for organizations to use this information to help those who need it most.

Director Kirkpatrick shares the same vision. Using data for social good is about different groups with different skillsets working to develop concrete solutions to address humanitarian needs, he said. That means private sector, regulatory community, humanitarian workers, development experts, and technology firms working together for the planet.

It’s also about empowering citizens to make the needed change.

“Imagine if anyone could type their zip code in their browser and see how climate change will change their community. Or if any community around the world, no matter how small or poor, could do sophisticated hydrological assessments to prepare for coming changes,” said Bessie.

“It can deliver huge change in this country.” She adds another case, “A citizen in a small town might log-on to notice that their risk to flooding will increase in the next 10 years and take additional preparation steps.”

These are compelling scenarios driving the United Nations, Cloud to Street, Microsoft, and countless organizations to use big data for social welfare—to put more data into people’s hands—and they encourage others to do the same.

For director Snapp, the outcome is rewarding. “[Technology’s] impact fuels our determination to marry the full power of cloud computing with the passion of the people and organizations who are working to address the world’s most pressing issues.”

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Ella loves writing about science, health, environment -- all things constructive. She believes in the power of words and seeks to use them to contribute to a positive, progressive society.

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