Big Data for Sustainable Development


Your tweets on Twitter and posted photos on Facebook are saved forever and you can browse them whenever you want. Have you asked yourself: "Where is this data stored?" Throughout the years, people have resorted to various means of information and data storage. Storage operations started with floppy disks, which could store three megabytes of data maximum! Later on, storage capacity slightly increased with the manufacture of Compact Disks (CDs); yet, although their storage capacity exceeded that of floppy disks, it remained very small.

People continued to develop and improve the storage capacity of these mediums until it became possible to exceed the limits of megabytes to reach storage capacities estimated in gigabytes then terabytes, bringing forth a technological revolution by all standards. However, the most effective technological revolution is the ability to store data by uploading it on the Internet; there is no need to own any storage device that can be lost or damaged, including the data stored on it. Nowadays, anyone, anywhere, can now store his/her data of photos, videos, books, etc., on the Internet using various applications, most notably Google Drive, for free with no more lost files.

As a result, the size of data stored globally on the Internet is increasing dramatically; estimated until 2017 to be 2.7 zetabytes (one zetabyte is equal to one billion terabytes, or 1021 bytes). By 2020, the data size is expected to grow to reach 44 zetabytes! This large volume of data is a natural outcome of daily human interactions with digital products and services; including mobile phones, credit cards, social media, amongst others. All of this resulted in a massive influx of data, also known as “Big Data”.

This huge explosion of Big Data availability is a major technological revolution; with the advent of Artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data can transform the whole world. In 2015, the world adopted a new development agenda based on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To achieve these goals, world countries must be aware of the data needed to take integrated actions on economic, social, and environmental challenges. However, this data is still not available in several countries, especially poor countries, to set global and regional development plans and achieve the SDGs.

Currently, a lot of Big Data is being collected around the world by several private companies, such as Google, Facebook, and others. If partnerships are established between these private companies and sectors that target achieving sustainable development, they will ensure the availability of the needed data for achieving its goals. Here are some goals, let us see how they can be achieved using Big Data:

  • No Poverty: Information on patterns and magnitude of spending on mobile services can be indicators of income levels and its distribution among different classes.
  • Zero Hunger: Tracking food prices online can help monitor food security and ensure its availability with reasonable prices for all classes.
  • Good Health and Well-Being: Observing a mobility map of mobile phone users can predict the spread and prevention of infectious diseases before their spread.
  • Quality Education: Parent and citizen reports available online can be used to reveal the reasons for students dropping out of education.
  • Gender Equality: Analyzing data of financial transactions conducted by men and women can reveal their spending patterns and the impact of economic crises on the pace of their spending; this will be an important factor in developing a gender pay equity plan.
  • Clean Water and Sanitation: Water pump sensors can track access to clean water.
  • Affordable and Clean Energy: Integrating smart meter systems in utility companies allows managing the flow of electricity, gas, or water, in order to reduce waste and ensure adequate supply during peak periods.
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth: Transaction data using universal postal movements can be indicators of the economic growth rate, remittance flows, commerce, and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which in turn reflect the average revenue per person.
  • Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure: Data from Global Positioning System (GPS) devices can be used in monitoring traffic and improving public transportation.
  • Reduced Inequalities: Analyzing speech transformation into text of local radio content can reveal public concerns about discrimination and the degree of responsiveness of domestic support to reducing it.
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities: Satellite remote sensing can track the infringement of public lands or spaces, such as parks and forests.
  • Responsible Consumption and Production: Internet search patterns or electronic commerce transactions can reveal the rapid pace of transition to energy-efficient products.
  • Climate Action: Bringing together different satellite images and open data can help track and cease the process of deforestation; to preserve the Earth's greenery, which in turn keeps the climate stable.
  • Life Below Water: Tracking ships can reveal illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing activities, which help protect marine organisms and preserve fisheries.
  • Life on Land: Social media can support disaster management and control in real-time by using the circulated information in identifying victims' locations accurately, knowing the force and effects of forest fires, and the effects of fog.
  • Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions: Analyzing the emotions of social media users through their interactions with different news can reveal the public opinion on effective governance, provision of public services, or human rights.
  • Partnerships for the Goals: Partnerships for bringing together mobile and Internet statistics and data can provide a better understanding of today's highly integrated and interdependent world.

The potential of Big Data must be used because it can easily help achieve the United Nations SDGs for a better world and human life. The mission now is how to optimize the use of this data to achieve as many SDGs as possible.


This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Autumn 2019 issue.

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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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