Why Big Data is Important

Several years ago at university I took a course in the economics of developing countries. Back then I thought I had stumbled on the most intractable problem mankind ever faced. Now with the world running out of resources perhaps the concept of developing applies to all of us.

But sometimes when you think you understand a problem you realize you are looking at it through the wrong lenses. The shortages we face today as a planet in energy, clean water, medicine and nutrition are simply aspects of a single, bigger problem – a shortage of information.

With the rapid changes in technology everything we call information whether it’s a book, a film, a conversation even an awareness of someone’s presence is data that can be digitalized. With the proliferation of mobile computing and communication devices what has come to be called ‘Big Data’ is growing exponentially, 90 per cent of it created in the last couple of years.

But what has information, digital or otherwise, got to do with the fact that the planet is running out of resources or that nearly 11 million children die every year through under nourishment; lack of clean water perhaps being the biggest problem?

Since the dawn of civilization we have been collecting information on papyrus scrolls to silicon chips. But until recently our lives have been defined by a lack rather than an abundance of it. Think of the recent financial crisis – how much of us really understood the risks we were taking?

Now with our ability to store and compute almost anything that is all about to change. We are entering a golden era of computing and with that our ability to manage our resources and our lives better than ever eliminating waste.

In their book ‘Abundance’, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler point out that in America today 70 percent of our water is used for agriculture, yet 50 percent of the food we produce gets thrown away. Five percent of our energy goes to pump water but 20 percent of that water is lost through leaky pipes.

A water shortage is really an information shortage. By creating a smart water system that identifies how and where we lose it we can manage it more effectively.

An example is computer-assisted irrigation with GPS tracking and remote sensing technologies that allow farmers to know everything that is going on in their fields. This method of precision agriculture allows farmers to lower their water usage, target it more effectively and increase their productivity.[i]

When most of us think about Big Data we tend to see the commercial opportunities first.

And solving the world’s water supply is a huge commercial opportunity. But it is also a great human opportunity, a chance to lift the world out of poverty, to raise living standards by solving our most basic problems first – our  ability to help each other survive.

[i] “Abundance – the Future is Better Than You Think” Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Free Press 2012

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