The world’s farmers produce enough food to feed 10 billion people yet there are currently 795 million people going hungry and by 2050, another 2 billion will be added to this number. Many put this dichotomy down to the fact that globally, around 40% of all food goes to waste. Whether that is through a lack of infrastructure or knowledge that allows fresh food to spoil, or because in many developed countries, portion sizes result in much going in the bin, this situation is only going to worsen as climate change increases the pressure on food security. 

Food security is one of the world’s greatest challenges. In 2008, Lancet produced research into the effects of child malnutrition and found that if a child does not have adequate nutrition in its first thousand days, the damage is irreversible. Their brains and bodies will be stunted to the extent that in children that are deeply malnourished, brain volumes are up to 40% less than those of children who receive adequate nutrition. 

Could data be the answer to finding a way to ensure everybody receives their share of the world’s food?

In September 2016, Mallory Freeman, the Lead Data Scientist in the UPS Advanced Technology Group, gave a TED talk in which she explained how her team created a tool that allowed decisionmakers to analyse the overwhelming volume of data to improve decisions around food supply. In doing so, she estimates that they may be able to help improve nutrition of around 900 million people - in just a matter of days. 

Using data collected internationally on the best type of crop, geographical factors, economic budgets and many more differentiators, the team found a solution that delivered benefits above and beyond easing malnutrition. For example, using their data solution in a project in Iraq, the team identified a pattern that allowed them to save 17% of the costs of feeding a population on rations, allowing them to feed an additional 80,000 people within the same budget. 

Freeman believes that whilst the technology allows governments to make the smartest decisions to feed their citizens, the deciding factor in how successful their data software is, is having enough data to derive this decision from. Therefore, “if we really want to make big changes in big problems like world hunger…we need the data,” she explains.

By donating data or allowing scientists and technology to gather new sources of data, it would be possible to model populations suffering from food security issues and offer their governments a path forward. The ability to pull together a strategy that is founded on fact improves the likelihood of success. However, to procure this level of information, a culture of ‘data philanthropy’ must be adopted.

Data philanthropy could entirely revolutionise corporate social responsibility, shifting the onus from donations and aid, towards governments empowered to make informed decisions that significantly benefit the population. 

Data philanthropy is not complicated. It is simply a new way of utilising the reams of information almost all private sector entities collect, yet rarely fully use. While data privacy and protection are crucial, there is a way of protecting these rights whilst utilising the volume of data sitting out there unused, for global good. If the world’s private companies that collect data on a minute by minute basis were to donate data, researchers would be able to model solutions based on real-time information.

For example, in Senegal, Freeman and her team worked with a major telecom company who agreed to donate their data to her project and in doing so, the team found that by examining patterns in the pings to the cell phone towers, it was possible to map travel patterns and help predict the spread of malaria. 

In another example, a satellite company the team worked with donated their data which allowed the researchers to track how droughts impact food production, enabling the potential to trigger aid funding before a crisis happens. 

However, even if all private sector companies, globally, donated their data, the most important aspect of using data to solve global challenges such as hunger, is deciphering, analysing and offering suggestions from this data. As such, you need decision scientists. 

Decision scientists take the data, clean it up, transform it and put it into a useful algorithm. While there are many private sector data scientists, there are very few in the humanitarian aid sector. Therefore, in addition to donating data, the private companies of the world also need to donate their decision scientists, offering skills and time as a form of CSR, instead of funding. 

The private sector also needs to consider donating the technology capable of capturing new sources of data. This is because there are significant gaps in humanitarian data and it is these gaps that are preventing the decisions that could save millions of people from hunger.

For example, the migration crisis in Europe has shown that the current inadequate system of tracking people leaves authorities blind. However, with smart tracking systems, humanitarian organisations will be able to access better data and deliver aid to where it is needed the most. For instance, a private sector collaboration between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and UPS resulted in UPS Relief Link -  combining the use of a hand-held scanning tool and durable identification cards to replace paper records in refugee camps allowing aid organisations to track the growth of the population and record the most vulnerable residents. 

Pilot programmes in Ethiopia (Dollo Ado) and Mauritania (Mbera) found that the solution allowed decision makers to distribute supplies more quickly, document that provisions are distributed equitably, and minimise data inaccuracies. The system also makes it possible for UNHCR to integrate its refugee registration platform with a distribution platform using light, flexible, and reliable mobile tools to match the right assistance with the right people.

Data philanthropy could be the answer to helping governments around the world feed, clothe and shelter hundreds of thousands more people, but to do so, companies in the private sector need to step up and offer their data, time and skills to ensure enough information is gathered to identify the best way forward. The potential of saving billions from starvation should surely give enough food for thought to inspire action. 

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