The Use of Big Data in Global Health and Development

“How might we discern the nature of structural violence and explore its contribution to human suffering?” Can we devise an analytic model, one which explains the predictive power for understanding suffering in a global context?”  – Paul Farmer

Through the use of Big Data we could more than develop an analytic model for understanding suffering in a global context. We could use data to change the world. Big Data consists of the collection of users’ information voluntarily given while using software applications. Social Media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ already collects our data whether we knowingly or unknowingly share private information. DATA is collected and used by marketing and sales companies to sell products or given to the government surveillance agencies and employment companies monitoring potential job applicants daily activities for the purpose of hiring potential. People are not willing to share their personal health information about themselves out of privacy concerns. However, through facilitating a community-led approach, the use of Social Media platforms, as well as through the use of Surveys, health data collection is possible. There could be an App-For-That, a mobile application that shares ones health information and offers recommendations. Therefore BIG DATA and Health could be used for development purposes, across all sectors of high-income and low-income economies, especially in Africa where mobile communication is a growing trend.

Mobile phone penetration rates are growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world.

Mobile phones and the cell tower networks on which they depend provide a unique platform for the collection and even more important the dissemination of key information, including farming best practices, market prices, and weather forecasts. To reach scale, Africa’s regional organizations should engage their member states, key telecom businesses, and NGOs to harness existing technologies such as SMS (and next generation technologies such as picture messaging and custom Apps for mobiles). Mobile phones cut out opportunity costs, replacing several hours of travel, and allows firms and producers to get up-to-date information on demand. They also redistribute the economic gains and losses per transaction between consumers and producers. This reduction in the costs of information gathering creates an ambiguous net welfare gain for consumers, producers, and firms.

The accessible collection of data has potential uses for mobile applications and there’s a number of important uses for Data and Health.

We need data to know what the health conditions are from which people suffer. We need to know the extent which these conditions affect people. We need to gather data to carry out disease surveillance and understand epidemic demographics. The burden of health conditions has relative importance to different societies and that importance should be attached to dealing with health burdens. Those who work on global health have attempted for a number of years to construct a single indicator that could be used to compare how far different countries are from a state of good health. Such an index would take account of morbidity, mortality, and disability, allowing one to make comparisons on health status across regions within a country and across countries. This indicator would also include Health Adjusted Life Expectancy (HALE) and the Disability Adjusted Life Year (DALY). Through big data and cloud computing, the necessary collection of DATA on users health and lifestyle patterns will contribute towards R&D of a single indicator that could be used across regions, within countries, and across countries—which leads to a scalable global database management system. It is an ambitious design but not an impossible vision. The African Union President Mutharika of Malawi said:

“I would therefore request the African Union Assembly to share the dream that five years from now no child in Africa should die … I propose that our slogan should be: “Feeding Africa through New Technologies: Let Us Act Now.”

The African continent is fast becoming a place for emerging economies and for the scaling of sustainable technologies.

Many factors are in play: (1) Advances in science, technology, and engineering offers Africa new tools to promote sustainable agriculture; (2) Efforts to create regional markets will provide incentives for investments, production, and trade; (3) A new generation of African leaders are helping Africa focus on long-term economic transformation. At the 8th African Union Summit in January of 2007, for example, African leaders encouraged a new generation of youths to take up studies in science, technology, and engineering education. A TEDx: Ideas Worth Spreading talk called the ‘Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ is about a Malawian boy who built a windmill to power his family’s home. William Kamkwamba, in spite of living in poverty and famine, was able to harness the wind, at the age of 14. He detailed his surprising journey in his book, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”

Inspired from watching Kamkwamba TEDx talk, I believe a lot could be done in terms of development through the use of BIG DATA and Health—collecting whatever small pieces of information on a individual’s health and lifestyle. First, it starts with community outreach and organizing. Then it includes tech based solutions, public and private capital investments, and an entrepreneurial driven analytic model. Venture Capital investments could help groom small and medium sized start-up businesses into successful social enterprises. As far as I know, at this point in time, VC investments barely exists outside of South Africa. Start-up scenes could be introduced and nurtured as a whole in developing economies—fostering aspiring entrepreneurs and the next big idea.

Mission Statement: “Self-empowerment is limited by money. We need to become entrepreneurs and create products that enact our values. A better life, health, and education for a truly enhanced sustainable way of living.”


Skolnik, Richard. Essentials of Global Health: Sudbury, MA: Jones and Barlett Publishers; 1st Edition (2008); Chapter 2.

TED: Ideas Worth Sharing. William Kamkwamba: How I Harnessed the Wind. Retrieved from

Calestous, Juma. The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. Oxford University Press: 2011.