Big data, SDGs, and COVID-19

August 8, 2020

Jamiil Touré Ali

Like a double helix, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the COVID-19 pandemic responses are intertwined and cannot be tackled by a piecemeal approach (UNDP, 2020) whether using big data or not. That being said, it is still essential to know how the trio big data, SDGs, and COVID-19 pandemic is being applied in response to the current sanitary problem. 

COVID-19 means a multidimensional crisis that affects all the SDGs. And as of today, many big data applications respond to the pandemic while tackling those goals. These applications range from the deployment of big data technology that enables the collection of live data on the epidemic for analytics, visualization, and forecasting, to the provision of free access COVID-19 cloud computing resources.This information becomes a valuable input for public policy decision-making.

Examples are meant to illustrate, inspire, and, most of all, to instruct on the successes or failures of the past. As COVID-19 hit the world, a couple of big data solutions had already been implemented. China’s big data COVID-19 tracker project is one of the applications that helped to fight the pandemic by addressing SDG 3 at the same time. Even so, there are several big data applications around the world in response to the pandemic, which also address SDGs. Below are some big data applications that help to cope with the pandemic in SDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, and 8

SDG 1 – No poverty | Poverty is the root of the goals, and although the crisis has made this goal more challenging, it also presents an opportunity to revolutionize development (UNDP, 2020). To date, there exist historical statistics which could help us forecast what the likelihood of poverty around the world is. These statistics constitute the important data information we need to keep track of to help combat COVID-19, while addressing SDG 1 (World Bank Blogs, 2020). In the city of Guiyang, many farming sites were closing due to COVID-19, and as a result, China’s national policy of eradicating poverty in rural areas and eliminating regional poverty by 2020 was being affected. A response to the challenge has been the implementation of a big data system based on the internet of things (IOT). The system helps drive insights to alleviate poverty in those so-called weak areas through the collection of information on the planting farms, which is provided for farmers and then enabling them to foresee the pandemic (PR Newswire, 2020).   

SDG 2 – Zero Hunger | The United Nations World Food Programme has warned that an estimated 265 million people could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020, up from 135 million people before the crisis, due to income and remittance losses (World Bank, 2020). With the new workplace restrictions due to COVID-19 (confinement and distancing), it has been challenging to earn money and put food on the table. Developers respond to this need by creating new mobile and web applications that are scalable and allow online purchasing, as well as research and analysis to take place with the data gathered. In addition to that,  FAO’s Big Data tool on food chains on the COVID-19 impact on supply chains and food insecurity is an example of a big data solution during the pandemic, which helps us address SDG 2 in the country level (FAO, 2020).

SDG 3 – Good health and well-being | Before the pandemic, the world was off track to ensure healthcare for all by 2030 (UNDP, 2020). And COVID-19 raised a severe concern that jeopardizes the progress that has already been done in declining infant and maternal mortality rates or deaths caused by malaria. Using big data storage technology, health workers, scientists, and epidemiologists have access to real-time data in order to find a vaccine to the virus or try to better understand the best way to either reduce the spread of it or contain the spread among people. For instance, the C3.AI COVID-19 Data Lake is an AI platform that provides unified data about COVID-19 from various sources to researchers, to answer critical questions such as predicting patient responses to antiviral or anti-inflammatory therapies, identifying potential new drugs and treatments, and finding other indicators such as biomarkers that can inform clinical decision-making.

SDG 4 – Quality education | UNDP estimates that closing the digital gap would reduce by more than two-thirds the number of children not learning because of school closures (UNDP, 2020). Closing of schools and universities is a response to the impact COVID-19 is having on education. Big data helps better address this issue as we need now more than ever before to think in terms of online education platforms, which in return heavily rely on access to the internet. Because of the quality of education in its essence means education accessible for all independently of our race, social, and financial situation. In this research, hundrED has documented, packaged, and released a collection of 30 simple, yet effective solutions that help parents, teachers and children navigate through the plethora of challenges facing education during the pandemic (hundrED, 2020). From high-quality resources to scalable innovations that have the potential to spread, the bank of information available suits all tastes.  

SDG 8 – Decent work and economic growth | The International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that more than 1 out of 6 young people have lost their jobs since the pandemic began, and those that are still at work have seen their hours reduced (ILO, 2020). The novel coronavirus pandemic has introduced remote working as the new standard of work. In other words, social distancing and confinement resolutions in response to the virus have led companies to learn to operate all their activities online. This makes retention of work challenging. An example of big data implementation which helps combat COVID-19 while addressing SDG 8, are Hackathons or online competitions which aim to bring together researchers from different parts of the world to reflect on COVID-19, using big data tools but also offering a cash prize for competitors (UN GWG, 2020). For competitors, the benefits may go beyond winning cash prizes, as signing a contract.  

While big data can be used to provide answers to the COVID-19 pandemic through data analytics, visualization, or machine learning implementation, it is essential to highlight data privacy issues when using big data (WIRED, 2020). For instance, big data information granularity collected during COVID-19 as name, current location, contact, marital status, blood group, etc., represents sensitive information, which, if handled carelessly, could be used to harm a person. For this reason, it’s important that both parties (collectors and interviewees) be aware of the purpose of data collection, its usages, and its implementations. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) settled the framework to work in building a sustainable future for all leaving no one behind. The SARS-CoV-2 disease seriously affected this framework by demanding humanity to work for a solution, while reviewing those global Objectives. Big data solutions showed us that there is hope in combating COVID-19 while also achieving the SDGs. However, as big data solutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are provided, data privacy should be carefully considered to prevent the world from future disasters.

Also, the ways in which we approach the implementation of the SDGs, should consider the use of big data, to prevent future pandemics.

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