How Big Data Can Help Solve Global Problems

By Karen Graham

Big data impacts everything around us today, and it is being used to help us understand and solve world problems. Today, climate change has moved to the top of the list of global risks, affecting every nation and disrupting economies.

Computer screens show seismic activity from the Bardarbunga volcanic eruption at the Icelandic met office in Reykjavik on August 23, 2014

Photo taken by Halldor Kolbeins, AFP.

Big data analytics are available to everyone — All we have to do is turn on our computer and start looking. IBM estimates that by 2020, there will be more than 300 times the information that we had available in 2005. But one issue centers around how we use that information to solve problems.

Paul Szyarto, head of the Big Data program at Rutgers University, notes that while many of the world's poorer nations are turning to big data analytics in solving problems in development, from farming to climate change, a lack of technology infrastructure is holding them back.

Big data usually includes data sets that are so large, they are beyond the capability of commonly used software tools. We are talking about files ranging from a few dozen terabytes to many petabytes of data. The sheer volume of data available is amazing. Thus, the need for proper technology infrastructure.

Hurricane specialist uses a computer at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, to track the path of Hurricane Joaquin, as it passes over parts of the Bahamas on October 1, 2015

Photo taken by Joe Raedle, Getty Images/AFP

Nations like Kenya and India are using big data gathered on weather patterns and using weather models to forecast climate variations to adapt agriculture practices, boost crop yields and tackle food insecurity.

In West Africa, big data is being used to tackle diseases by gathering information on previous disease outbreaks and the routes of they spread over. In this way, high-risk zones can be identified and then targeted with prevention programs. We have seen this being done with Ebola, malaria and other diseases.

Szyarto told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Monday that developing nations are not using big data analytics to their full potential, primarily due to not enough investment in tech infrastructure, like hardware, servers and computers.

"Thanks to technologically advanced countries, there are several models which could be leveraged to analyze data, but most developing countries lack the infrastructure to capture, gather, store and analyze the data being created," Szyarto said, via an email interview.

Szyarto is a global expert on business transformation and advises firms on changes needed in coping with shifts in the market environment. But he says that "Many developing countries don't possess the knowledge needed to drive a value-added program around the use of big data."

The point he is making is actually quite simple — With all the information available today, knowledgeable people, using the right technology can utilize large volumes of data to assess the risks and long-term effects of the environmental impacts of climate change on the economy, health, food sustainability and energy.

(you can find the original post on Digital Journal here)

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