Big Data Initiatives in Developing Nations

Can big data, open data, and programs such as the Aadhaar Project enhance lives in underprivileged segments of society?

The world of technology and business demonstrates how big data helps revolutionize the science and art of segmentation, targeting, and positioning to market goods and services. In addition, the decreasing costs of big data storage, open source software such as Apache Hadoop, advanced software such as NoSQL databases, and on-demand access to resources through cloud computing are bringing complex technology to nearly everyone. Factor in the slowly increasing pool of multidisciplinary trained data scientists, and business does seem to be moving enthusiastically toward big data technology. Big data can translate into highly successful outcomes for many organizations, and build in enhanced forecasting and targeting for tremendously efficient production and supply.

Another side to big data

The big data story is certainly a boon to business. But big data can also play a key role in helping enhance the personal lives of a wide swath of this planet’s humanity. In essence, big data has the capability to help many people around the world work toward alleviating income inequality. It can do so in several ways:

  • Financial services: Highly refined analytics can offer access to financial services such as micro-loans and enhanced insurance coverage for people living in areas with limited resources.
  • Agriculture: Radio frequency identification (RFID) sensors offer smarter agriculture outcomes by enabling monitoring of crop, fertilizer, pest, and soil conditions. Crop and seed data made available in real time enables researchers to use big data to expand options for sustainable agriculture that feeds the large populations who rely on it.
  • Education: In this burgeoning era of cloud and mobile computing, there are many avenues for revolutionizing education, which can open up a wealth of opportunities. Today’s low-cost tablet and phablet options, community Wi-Fi zones, and back-end support through crowdsourcing for tutors and Internet-enabled education portals—think massive open online courses (MOOCs) but with more interactivity—can all contribute to enhancing accessibility to education. Through expanded Internet access, big data analytics can be applied to help reduce the costs of education. Student performance can be examined efficiently, and customized, paced solutions can be delivered to develop skill sets for immediate, short-term success and advancement.
  • Healthcare: Internet-based health portals made available to wider populations can help reduce the cost of maintaining electronic health records and establish unique ID numbers for citizens. The data captured at these portals can also help significantly reduce the cost of drug discovery as improved analytics help determine which drugs work well and which aren’t as effective for certain conditions. Big data analytics may even allow for uploading the genomics of large populations that can be stored for researching new generations of drug therapies. Improving healthcare in developing nations helps mitigate illnesses that can sap the productivity necessary to advance societies.
  • Corruption reduction: By transferring subsidies directly to low-income earning end users, governments can utilize technology to help increase the efficiency with which they provide for and administer to those in need. Governments can apply big data technology to solutions that cut through the obstacles of administrative costs, red tape, unwieldy bureaucracy, and either lack of information or misinformation to citizens who may be unaware of their eligibility for these programs.
  • Carbon consumption: Climate changes and increasing carbon emissions are having a global impact. But the effects of carbon emissions and environmental changes can deter progress in developing nations. Technology advances in the form of wearable devices, Internet-connected automobiles, and home-based sensors connected to power grids are beginning to enable societies to tackle their environmental challenges.

Big data identities

Societies in today’s world can potentially be exposed to unethical practices with the issuance and handling of official documents. One way to address such a challenge is exemplified by the Aadhaar Project in India, implemented by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), that focuses on providing unique identity numbers to every citizen.1 This project provides a good example of applying big data technology to help eliminate the many problems that can result from the myriad challenges in maintaining identity management systems.

Using biometrics including both fingerprint and iris scans and a secure network, unique identity numbers called Aadhaar numbers—the equivalent to Social Security numbers in the US—are assigned to citizens of India. These numbers enable citizens to access bank accounts or obtain loans that otherwise would not be available to them. For many people, the Aadhaar number paves the way to having access to these financial resources for the first time. The project also enables the government to launch schemes for directly transferring subsidies or benefits of cooking gas directly to the bank accounts of people living below the poverty line. As a result, government can bypass unreliable supply chains and high administrative costs.

Though the project is still in its early phases, it has clearly benefitted from big data storage and open source software. These technologies have drastically reduced the threshold at which developing countries can experiment with e-governance and e-commerce projects that can enrich the lives of their citizens.

Open data portals such as Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India offer other examples of how advancing technology is benefitting India and other nations. As stated on the OGD site, the portal serves as an open resource that collects applications, data sets, documents, services, and tools for public use. A key goal is to provide open approaches to innovative use of government data that increase transparency for governmental functions.2

These portals are in use by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology. Although this project is a bit behind contemporary open data initiatives by US cities such as Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, this type of initiative in India marks an important milestone. Developing countries can take advantage of big data visualizations and technology advancements to help improve civic systems for city maintenance services, healthcare, law enforcement, transportation, weather forecasting and severe weather warnings, and other such systems.

Open pathways to progress

For many denizens of this planet, big data, analytics, and other technological achievements can go a long way toward helping them realize their dreams and ambitions for significant change in today’s world. By making the various technologies mentioned here—big data storage, complimentary Wi-Fi zones, near-real-time analytics, open data, wearable devices, and so on—widely available to people across all socioeconomic levels, developing nations in particular have opportunities to advance their societies. From tablets and phablets delivering customized education and healthcare administration to digitized recordkeeping and portal-provided services, big data, analytics, and open data can open pathways for developing nations to move segments of their societies beyond limitations imposed by impoverished conditions.

Please share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

1Unique Identification Authority of India,” Government of India website.
2Open Government Data (OGD) Platform India website.