Why Big Data can deliver Social Good

Digital technology and hyper-connectivity are emerging forces in the movement to support sustainable development and consumption practices.

This was one of the central observations at the Better Future Forum 2014, hosted by BT and Globe-Scan in July 2014, writes Oliver Fall.

The forum outlined both the possibilities, and the challenges, of applying digital technologies to promoting sustainable consumer habits.

Although the potential is profound and viable examples exist, a report following the summit finds that global best practices are still in development as comprehension of digital applications’ full potential are better understood.

The participants concluded that the benefits of digital technology are already self-evident, providing the means to simplify the deluge of data and store it in necessary human formats, which in turn enable new consumption habits which can result in more sustainable approaches.

However, many existing successful e-commerce business models have thrived not on environmental considerations, but customer’s convenience and social and cultural considerations, the summit noted.

While these models have demonstrated the success and possibilities surrounding e-commerce and digital behaviour, emerging economies are demonstrating unique opportunities for digital data users, the participantrs claimed.

For example, emerging economies bypass the investment requirements of terrestrial telephone infrastructures meaning that ongoing programmes and initiatives utilising digital data and hyper connectivity across the energy and healthcare sectors have proven the technology’s validity.

Examples cited include the RUDI (Rural Distribution Network), a mobile app developed by Vodafone and the World Bank. Automating the farm produce supply chain process it has reduced time travelled by 90% and generated new business opportunities.

Across Africa, notable projects include Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development-supported telemedicine in Ghana and the Earth Institute’s smart management of renewable energy power plants in African villages. The rapid commercial success of Kenya’s mobile-based M-PESA currency and M-KOPA Solar power initiatives have also gained international attention.

While such applications can amplify the speed at which change is adopted several key challenges remain.

Digital inequality remains a barrier to maximising the benefits of data, which is compounded by unequal access to education and skills across all markets. This is in turn has implications for privacy considerations, transparency and a detrimental lack of understanding amongst consumers.

Addressing and resolving these issues in each market will inevitably ensure that the potential of digital technology is fully exploited.

Findings from the Better Future Forum 2014, entitled ‘Making waves – The rising tide of data for social good’ can be downloaded here and a full list of developing world uses of big data compiled by Harvard University is here.