Small steps in data for a giant leap in development

By Michael Bzdak 01 August 2016

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module Eagle during the Apollo 11 mission. Photo by: NASA

Almost 50 years ago, one of the boldest chances in science was taken — sending a man to the moon. The “moonshot” of Apollo 11 on July 19, 1969, culminated in a pioneering moment for human kind as three Americans entered space to achieve a goal once thought impossible.

On July 19, 2016, I sat in a meeting hearing the term “moonshot” used repeatedly, a word rapidly becoming a common way to describe an ambitious and exploratory project or undertaking. The term, not surprisingly, derives from the Apollo 11 spaceflight project, which landed the first human on the moon.

My reflective moment of serendipity came during a meeting where a group of my colleagues at Johnson & Johnson were discussing a potential commitment aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. Since the great moonshot of 1969, the world has come a long way in decreasing poverty and seeing more humans living longer and healthier lives. Critical to our discussion was the challenge of measurement and the evidence of our impact.

Recognizing that public commitments require a solid measurement framework, our conversation centered on the importance of a realistic goal, or set of goals, and a credible framework to measure progress.

Most important in our goal setting, we challenged each other to think beyond “number of people reached” to other more ambitious and aspirational goals, targets and ways of catalyzing existing efforts to reach new heights.

In the true spirit of a moonshot, we are embracing the idea of taking some giant leaps for our SDGs commitment as well as outlining the framework of small steps to get us there. We also realize that big ideas require big data: For NASA and the Apollo 11 team, the success of the mission relied heavily on massive amounts of data before and during their historic quest.

With the total cost of the SDGs estimated to be trillions of dollars a year, we clearly need a moonshot to tackle the SDG agenda. As one recent report states, the total cost for the SDG targets related to poverty, health and education is estimated to be $148 billion a year in low-income countries alone.

Our proof of concept for catalyzing data in philanthropy comes directly from the framing and impact of our Millennium Development Goals commitment.


Johnson & Johnson answered the U.N. secretary-general’s Every Woman Every Child call to action and committed to MDGs 4, 5 and 6 to increase the health and wellness of women and children. In five years, through partnerships worldwide, we reached over 400 million women and children with care, improved local health system capacity in 84 countries and trained over 350,000 health workers.

As the data revolution explodes around us, being smart, being collaborative and being transparent will become the new data mantra. For example, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative that he is leading, where the cancer research community is being pressed to explore new approaches to cancer research. A key element is data sharing to accelerate progress against cancer.

With the private sector engaging with the SDGs, we must all strive to make our partnerships sustainable, measurable and, most important, of enduring greatness. There will be no one sector to achieve the SDGs alone — it will take the combined efforts of each sector bringing their best to the table.

The unique value we see the private sector can bring to the table is leveraging measurement and data science from program design through evaluation. For example, we have brought data experts from across our company into our social impact partnerships to enrich the decision-making process, as well as the capacity of our partners, to better utilize data for impact.

Leveraging this resource in the SDGs, our partnership decisions must be driven by data — we must think on a new scale and more carefully about the essence of working together, particularly in aligning our interests and motivations.

To achieve broader reach and deeper impact, we must assemble the quantitative and qualitative evidence to demonstrate progress and point to gaps in order to help us make informed decisions on prioritizing efforts and resources. The clock is ticking and the need to collect, use and analyze the right data has taken on a sense of urgency in these early days of commitment making.

July 19, 1969, is a single day noted in history but the ripple effects of Apollo 11’s moonshot endure. Jan. 1, 2016, marked the beginning of the SDGs; we can ensure that it also begins a ripple effect to catalyze action for a global health moonshot — let’s have the data to prove it.

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.

About the author

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Michael Bzdak

As executive director of Global Community Impact at Johnson & Johnson, Michael Bzdak manages the corporation’s strategy for strengthening the health care workforce and leads efforts around program evaluation. He also manages the corporation’s employee efforts and philanthropic support for K-12 education, including a signature school-to-career program. Michael has been an employee of Johnson & Johnson since 1990. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and master’s and doctoral degrees from Rutgers University. Michael is now a lecturer in the School of Communication and Information Studies at Rutgers University and an adjunct faculty member at New York University

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