Summary: The internet, mobile phones, bank cards and social media are just some of the items responsible for the massive volume of data that is being amassed on our lives every second. As with artificial intelligence, drones, Internet of Things and other technological advances during the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the growth of data, or “big data”, has the potential to disrupt every industry. Data helps businesses gain key insights into customer preferences and when harnessed in the right way, data can also provide part of the answer to some of the world’s most complex and persistent problems. From corruption and famine to the refugee crisis, data is a powerful tool that can help to save lives and crucially, prevent further suffering.  

Governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society are being challenged in new ways when it comes to responding to humanitarian crises. According to The Economist, earthquakes, wildfires and other natural events caused US$210 billion in global economic losses in 2016 alone. In addition, hundreds of thousands of refugees have streamed into Europe from Syria and other countries in the Middle East displaced by war or civil unrest.

Aid and humanitarian organisations have traditionally struggled to pre-empt and prepare for these types of events, but data and analytics are fast becoming critical tools in strengthening early warning systems and aid relief efforts in the aftermath of crises.

With more than 135 million crisis-affected people around the globe, data is helping aid organisations and relief workers gain access to vital information that can drive informed decisions. Satellite images provided by drone footage and weather pattern tracking, smart use of data can ensure that people in the greatest need receive help. This data is then used to predict extreme weather, identify where food distributions need to be sent, where crops have been destroyed, ensure refugees have enough food and shelter, and so on. Indeed, the World Food Program (WFP) has said that data provides “a new frontier for humanitarian assistance”.

Recognising the importance of data and the results of its analysis as a “humanitarian tool”, organisations are increasingly implementing specific project teams and resources dedicated to figuring out how to best apply insights from data for disaster planning and management. For example, last year the UN opened a Humanitarian Data Centre which aims to increase the use and impact of data across the aid sector.  Facebook has also worked alongside UNICEF and the World Food Program, among others, on a “disaster maps” initiative that provides key information to organisations to help them improve how they respond and provide relief in the immediate hours after a crisis.

According to McKinsey, a “Big Data revolution is underway in healthcare”. Over the last decade, pharmaceutical companies have been aggregating years of research and development data into medical databases creating a data-driven transformation of healthcare provision.

Hospitals and clinics have been collecting data from scans, test results and research groups, and GPs have extensive patient records, all of which are building a far more complete picture of a patient, condition or trend.

The opportunities presented by big data in healthcare analytics are endless. For example, insights from data can increasingly help healthcare providers understand treatment outcomes for individuals as well as entire populations. Medical researchers are using data on treatment plans and recovery rates of cancer patients, to identify the highest success rates around the world allowing further study and eventual amendment to programmes that could help save thousands of lives.

Data also has the potential to significantly reduce treatment costs, predict the outbreak of epidemics, improve patient outcomes and understand how effective clinical trials have been allowing for further research or the development of accurate treatment plans.

Telemedicine is also becoming an effective tool for initial diagnosis. Big data permits remote patient monitoring and medical education for healthcare professionals, that can be delivered effectively from any location, allowing patient health to be monitored and treatment administered anytime, anywhere. This improves healthcare and increases accessibility whilst remaining affordable.

Data drives better decisions and with the right framework and supporting ecosystem, it can be a powerful tool in preparing for and responding to extreme global events, and in turn saving lives. Companies, governments, NGOs and civil society have access to mountains of data, and it is important that these actors work together to ensure it is used in the most effective way; not only to glean key insights on customers, but as a force for good – for humanitarian goals and to improve the provision of healthcare around the world.

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