Can Big Data Bring an End to Famine and Hunger?

Using technology to analyze large amounts of data could help identify regions vulnerable to famine and hunger. (Image:  Oxfam  via  wikimedia  CC BY 3.0)
Using technology to analyze large amounts of data could help identify regions vulnerable to famine and hunger. (Image: Oxfam via wikimedia CC BY 3.0)

Two of the biggest crises that have plagued humanity for thousands of years have been famine and hunger. Millions of people have died or had their growth stunted because of famine and shortages of food. However, big data presents a promising opportunity to end this problem forever.

Big data and famine

Thanks to technology, we can now manage and analyze large amounts of data — from food production to chances of flood or drought, to crop destruction, and so on.  By interpreting the data, we will soon be in a position to ensure that no food is wasted and that the food actually reaches the people who need it the most. Famines can be predicted in advance and new food supply chains can be established to mitigate negative consequences.

A famine typically has five stages. It is only during the fifth stage that the United Nations actually calls it a famine. As long as big data is able to identify the onset of the first stage early on, we should be able to intervene in vulnerable areas and combat even the most vicious of famines.

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By interpreting data on food production, chances of flood or drought, crop destruction, and so on, famines can be predicted in advance and new food supply chains can be established to mitigate negative consequences. (Image: Hydrosami via CC BY-SA 4.0)

“The World Bank can come in and move some of the money there ahead of time. And then, at the end of the day, we might also create an insurance-type instrument. So bringing together technological innovations with financial innovations could actually stop famines from ever happening again,” Recode quotes World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim.

Implementation in Africa

Africa is one of the worst affected regions in terms of famine and hunger. As such, several African companies are already at work using big data to manage such incidents. A startup called Dbuntu aims to collect information about crop management, milk production, and seed access of the African farmers, allowing for a real-time look at the region’s food production system.

“With the data, we hope over time we’ll be able to, say, put red flags over a particular region because they didn’t produce as much. But, at the same time, we also hope we’d be able to prevent [those shortages] because we’re giving the farmers the tools they need to maximize their agricultural efficiency,” co-founder Tatenda Ndambakuwa says in an interview with VCU News.

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Several African companies are already at work using big data to manage incidents of famine and hunger. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has developed the Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS) as a means to catch indications of a hunger crisis in Africa as early as a year in advance. NEWS uses machine learning technologies, analyzing hundreds of data points to identify patterns and trends that will point to a famine or hunger vulnerability in a specific region.

“What is different about NEWS is that it pays attention to malnutrition, not just drought or famine, but the nutrition outcome that really matters, malnutrition especially in women and children. For the first time, we are saying these are the options way ahead of time. That gives policymakers an opportunity to really do what they intend to do, which is make the lives of women and children better in Africa,” VOA News quotes CIAT nutrition expert Dr. Mercy Lung’aho.

With such warning systems put in place, it is very likely that we will be able to manage the world’s hunger and famine crises in a much better way in the near future, ensuring that no human being ever dies because of not having anything to eat.

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