Big Data And Its Meaning For Africa

Big Data is the buzzword amongst businessmen nowadays. Regardless of industry or company size, it manages to squeeze itself into every nook and cranny. It fills hush hush industry conversations and is mentioned with an air of stilted excitement, “The next big thing in business.” If you’re interested in innovative money making, no doubt you’ve heard it whispered that here’s where you should be looking. Alrighty then, we’re about to take a really good look at this latest buzzword and break it down. Is it really what it’s cracked up to be or are IT experts blowing hot air up our *ahem* just to watch us dance? Well, first, what is this mysterious Big Data?

big data

Ever since men and women in lab coats devised the world wide web as a means to share information about their findings with the rest of the scientific community in a fast, efficient way, data storage has been a problem few have been eager to solve; they have been well rewarded for their efforts (read: Big money). Methods were devised to tackle it over the decades and huge server plants around the world have helped us store an abundance of data so far.

Big data is about processing large amounts of data; information accumulated online. It is associated with multiplicities of data formats stored somewhere, say in a cloud or in distributed computing systems (server farms). Big data is a good example of how the methods and techniques developed by scientists to study nature have had an impact on society (e.g. electricity and electromagnetic waves studied by Maxwell and Hertz). The techno-economic fabric that underlies modern society would be unthinkable without these contributions.

However, the unprecedented popularity of the internet has seen humanity go into an orgy of content creation and sharing that has seen our storage and processing technology lag a tad behind. In lay man’s terms, we’re producing more data than we can handle and have become much like my mother used to say about me whenever I was over serving food, “A child whose eyes are too big for its stomach.” There are numerous examples of how findings intended to probe nature ended up revolutionizing life and because humanity’s greatest treasure is our collective intellect the problem that is big data must be solved for our continued advancement as a species. Big data is intimately intertwined with fundamental science and continues to evolve with it.

Big data is a broad term for data sets so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate.

The African continent often lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to embracing innovation. Nevertheless big data is increasingly being seen as a solution to tackling poverty on the continent. The private sector has been the first to get out of the starting blocks. The bigger African firms are, naturally, more likely to have big data projects. In Nigeria and Kenya at least 40% of businesses are in the planning stages of a big data project compared with the global average of 51%, not bad aye? Only 24% of medium companies in the two countries are planning big data projects.

Rich rewards can be reaped from harnessing big data. For example, healthcare organizations can benefit from digitizing, combining and effectively using big data. This could enable a range of players, from single-physician offices and multi-provider groups to large hospital networks, to deliver better and more effective services.

It could also enable the healthcare systems in the continent to improve by predicting the trend of certain diseases that are contagious and potentially dangerous which could lead to the saving of many lives that could have been lost if not for the power of big data being tapped into e.g when Google Flu Trend data predicted the spread of the flu faster and with better accuracy than the official statistics from the Center of Disease Control. The correct policy then was to scrap the official statistics approach and go with the big data which ended up stopping the widespread effect of the flu. Imagine if we could apply this computing power to epidemics that have threatened millions of lives in Africa, e.g. Ebola in 2015. How many lives would have been saved then had we had the processing power to predict its occurrence and spread?

Big data could also help non profits and NGO’s who are working tirelessly in their bid to eradicate poverty in Africa by handling large amounts of relevant information fed into specialized systems. Aid workers record information about what community members in their jurisdiction are eating, what diseases afflict them, what drugs they are taking, the number of needy children, what the local diet is etc. These organizations have come up with ways to receive more donor funding by providing up to date data on the community projects they are running, creating an air of transparency and efficiency that has translated into more people helped and given real hope that problems like world hunger could be solved by the year 2035.

Governments too stand to benefit from these large amounts of data, as well as pharmaceutical companies, medical groups, food companies, and many others. The sale of this data could fund more assistance, and provide investors with better returns on their investment in African markets. Because of the information provided to them, investors will be more likely to pour in more capital into African businesses, expanding them and creating huge employment opportunities to many, not only in the IT fields but in every other economic activity on the continent.

Grasping the challenge of managing big data could have big economic spin-offs. With economies becoming more and more sophisticated and complex the amount of data generated increases rapidly. As a result, in order to improve these complex processes it is necessary to process and understand increasing volumes of data. With this labour productivity is enhanced.

As always, for any of these benefits to become reality, Africa’s emerging sophisticated economy needs specialists who are proficient in big data techniques. With the necessary skilled manpower Africa will be unlocked to unlimited industrial growth that just might revolutionize the face of Africa before the whole world.

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