How will data and digital platforms transform sustainable development?

Community health workers are connected through mobile phones. With over 95 percent of the world’s population residing within coverage of a 2G mobile network, the opportunity for using digital tools and data to transform the way people access information and services cannot be understated. Photo by: Rob Tinworth / Nyaya Health / CC BY 

The world is experiencing unprecedented growth in the amount of data that is being produced. Experts predict that data generation will increase 4,300 percent annually by 2020. In response to this growth, innovative digital platforms are emerging to allow organizations to better access, analyze, and use the treasure troves of information that exists in the data.

With over 95 percent of the world’s population residing within coverage of a 2G mobile network, the opportunity for using digital tools and data to transform the way people access information and services cannot be understated. But where are digital platforms driving data-driven impact, and where is there untapped potential to bring these innovations to the bottom billion?

Digital platforms drive data-driven impact

Across sectors, a global digital economy is evolving at unparalleled rates. Within health care, a few organizations are leading the way as they demonstrate not only the economic potential of digital platforms, but also the opportunity to harness data to better monitor, treat and support patients.

For example, Silicon Valley-based Enlitic is using artificial intelligence to assess and interpret medical images such as x-rays and CT scans so that physicians can make faster, more accurate, and more affordable patient diagnoses. Accenture has teamed with Boston Scientific to develop a cloud-based, data-driven digital health solution for hospitals that is designed to enable providers to make more proactive and informed decisions based on insights into the patient population. Using an innovative analytics platform, the solution is designed to improve patient outcomes and reduce costs to treat patients with chronic cardiovascular diseases.

Taking data-driven digital solutions to developing markets

As with developed markets, digital innovation in low- and middle-income countries is advancing rapidly, with potential to “democratize” access to finance, education and medicine for the world’s most vulnerable populations.

A recent report published by GeSI and Accenture noted that with only 15 years to meet the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations, there is a need for efficiency and impact which digital solutions are uniquely positioned to deliver. This shift is particularly apparent in pursuit of Global Goal 3: Health for All.

“Only by building interconnected solutions, and by sharing the data that is generated, will society make true progress toward achievement of the SDGs.”

— Natasha Sunderji, global health lead at Accenture Development Partnerships

In India, a digital wearable platform called Khushi Baby is closing the world’s immunization gap using a necklace that costs less than $1. A chip in the necklace stores medical health records that can be accessed through a simple scanning technology to enable accurate treatment, while data collection informs stock management at the last mile.

Meanwhile, a program called STAMP2 is deploying health sensor technology and analytics to monitor, predict, and protect Ebola patients. This U.S. Agency for International Development-supported digital solution collects patient data using a device worn on the wrist that continuously monitors a patient’s vitals and feeds that data to a powerful analytics platform to detect changes in a patient’s health status over time, alerting care providers to early warning signs of Ebola.

While these digital programs highlight the power of a data-driven future, many solutions in developing countries are not maximizing their use of data. In a recent assessment of nearly 100 digital health applications in Kenya, 59 percent of projects reported having no evaluation component, missing the opportunity to leverage data to assess their impact, return on investment, and potential for scale.

Harness the full potential of digital tech

With seemingly endless ways to use digital technologies to translate data-driven insights into impact, here are just three ideas for future impact:  

1. Artificial intelligence to provide patients with medical diagnoses where there are no doctors.

Imagine a world in which AI capabilities such as those of Enlitic were brought to Nigeria, where there are only four trained physicians for every 10,000 people, and fewer than 20 oncologists across the country. The use of a digital artificial intelligence platform could support faster and more accurate breast cancer diagnosis to the estimated 50 million women expected to be living at risk of this devastating disease by 2020, drastically changing the health outcomes of millions of women.

2. Open-source platforms to respond to health challenges within hours instead of days.

GIS Mapping — using satellites, mobile devices, and mapping software — could be used to capture and share real-time data to mobilize medical resources and reach remote communities within hours of a reported disease outbreak.

3. Improve patient care coordination and drive lower costs for health systems.

Imagine a world in which health care providers use a population’s health data to make proactive decisions that reduce the likelihood a chronic heart disease patient experiencing life-threatening heart failure. In South America, where heart failure is the primary cause of hospitalization, a digital platform like Boston Scientific’s ADVANTICS Care Pathway Transformation could be coupled with emerging wearable technologies to provide real-time data to providers, signaling the need for early intervention long before patients find themselves in an emergency room, driving cost savings and saving lives.

These examples are closer to reality than we think — by drawing upon the learnings of data-driven digital platforms around the world, we can move rapidly towards the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves.

Where do we go from here?

First and foremost, all development sector players must see themselves as stewards of data for development. Across all lines of work, the informed collection, analysis and use of data must be prioritized to inform investments in sustainable development. As digital platforms continue to be an attractive and effective solution to support widespread impact, it is important to start by placing data at the center and ask, what data should be collected through our organization’s initiatives and how can it be managed responsibly and ethically at each stage of its collection and use? How can digital platforms support this? And how can organizations work together to improve and scale digital platforms to support data-driven insights across organizations and sectors?

Working together is imperative for sustainable development. The SDGs present a singular opportunity for development actors to collaborate to propel development forward.

Only by building interconnected solutions, and by sharing the data that is generated, will society make true progress toward achievement of the SDGs. Over the next decade, digital platforms will be the defining factor that unites organizations as a sustainable, data-driven future is created.

With potential to change the trajectory of crises, such as famines or the spread of diseases, the innovative use of data will drive a new era for global development. Throughout this monthlong Data Driven discussion, Devex and partners — the Agence Française de Développement, BroadReach, Chemonics and Johnson & Johnson — will explore how the data revolution is changing our approach to achieving development outcomes and reshaping the future of our industry. Help us drive the conversation forward by tagging #DataDriven and @devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Natasha Sunderji

    Natasha Sunderji is the global health lead for Accenture Development Partnerships, which delivers the power of Accenture’s global capabilities and experience to positively impact the lives of people in the developing world. Natasha has over a decade of experience in growth strategy, business model design, and program evaluation across public, private, and non-profit organizations. She has also helped to design and facilitate numerous cross-sectoral partnerships focused on addressing access challenges and strengthening healthcare systems to improve health outcomes. She holds a bachelors in biomedical engineering from University of Toronto and a masters in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School.