How data is shaping our world (Data is cool! article #1)

By Lee Allen @ Data³

Who said data was dull? Well me, in another life.

At my career start, I was an out-and-out words man. Wrestling with language on a day-to-day, I gave no thought to the world of data; it seemed cold and uninteresting to me.

That was before I joined a company doing smart stuff with customer data. All of a sudden it was useful — I could see which of my words worked best and which channels to use. I knew my audience far better, so everything I wrote resonated with them.

Fast forward to Data³ and I now eat, sleep and breathe data. I literally have the t-shirt (it’s a Data³ hoodie). We do smart stuff with customer data, and so much more.

Because I’m a convert, I thought it be good to share some of the data stories I come across. Cue my Data is cool! series, where I’ll share some of the ways data is shaping our lives in genuinely powerful and profound ways. Today we look at 5.


1. Data gets the vote

There’s never been an easier time to measure and predict general public opinion. With an explosion of data available from social media channels, big data projects are underway to predict large social events. Some are even using it to shape history.

Take the Indian National Congress (INC) party for example. They’re using data from the 2009 Indian general election to predict voting patterns and seat shifts in the upcoming 2019 election. They’re up against the current ruling party — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who are no strangers to data crunching either. In 2014, the BJP were one of the first to use data analytics to shape their political campaigns. By understanding the voter stance of a particular area, they re-tweaked their campaign according to religion, caste and other demographics.

Predictive analytics isn’t always right though. Jonathan Forbes of Aguila Insights says that with elections, you’ll always find data sourcing issues. This is because people can lie, hold back their views or simply change their mind. Modelling human motivation at scale really means that there’s always scope for an against-the-odds win.

That was arguably the case with the recent US election and Brexit referendum — a vote that had social media in uproar on both sides of the pond. Here again, data played a huge part, with some claiming that shady research companies used illegal data to target individuals and sway votes in both cases.


2. The map of poachers

How can data stack up against knives, axes and steel traps? Fairly well, it turns out. The Wildlife Protection Society of India has published a study that uses statistics to protect endangered tigers against poaching. The study analyzed 25,000 data points — collected since 1972 across 605 districts — on wildlife poaching crimes, including locations of confirmed tiger poaching instances and sites where tiger parts had been seized. The result is promising — with 73 “hot spots” identified as having a high likelihood of tiger poaching. This means greater knowledge for local conservationists and enforcement officials. And this means smarter and more efficient anti-poaching efforts.

A similar strategy has been adopted by Jonathan Palmer, head of the office of strategic technology at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Palmer has developed a software platform that helps park rangers track their patrols and the activities of poachers in their area. The system, called SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) is now in use in more than 600 sites across 55 countries. Before SMART, patrolling was ad-hoc and rangers would end up patrolling the same areas of park again and again. They also had limited information about where the poachers were. Now they can log the signs of poachers — traps, animal carcasses or human camping grounds — and upload this information to the SMART platform at the end of their day. Over time, they can build a picture of how effective their patrolling has been, and where they should be concentrating their efforts.

Spread of SMART technology (credit: http://smartconservationtools.org/ )

3. Data and disease

With 219 million cases last year, and over 400,000 child deaths, malaria is a serious endemic in need of fighting. Luckily, data is here to help. In Nigeria, non-profit Malaria No More has teamed up with a start-up called Sproxil to do something special.

In the last few years, Sproxil has been fighting the massive counterfeit drug market in Nigeria by placing unique codes on authentic medications. Anyone who buys those medications can text their unique code for free to Sproxil to verify the drugs. With mobile phone users in Africa now nearing 1 billion, this technology has far-reaching implications for diseases like Malaria. In remote areas, Malaria No More now encourages people to send information about what medications they’re taking. This gives them huge amounts of new data on where illnesses are occurring and how they’re being treated.

Aside from prevention and treatment of disease, data is also helping the healthcare industry save billions on wasted expenditure. Billions that were once raised to manage duplicate records at hospitals are now being used for more beneficial outcomes.

A great example of using data to improve outcomes is the success story of NHS Scotland. Since 2011, they’ve digitised health records and implemented analytical software that’s saved huge amounts in healthcare and administration costs.

The result, as shown by Volterra Partners and EMC, is staggering:


4. Growing the perfect Xmas tree.

A wide base, full coverage all the way to top, and needles that don’t find themselves all over the house by day 2. Yes, the struggle to find the perfect Christmas tree is one we all know well. Turns out that data is lending a hand.

Scientists at the University of Connecticut are looking at ways trees grow best. And they’re connecting genetic, physical, and environmental data housed in more than 15 major plant databases to do it. By taking this big data approach, they are hoping to solve bigger ecological issues, like reforestation and climate change.

For example, the researchers are combining surveys of forests collected by drone technology with data on soil and climate conditions. By bringing all the data together, they’re able to spot trends that can solve big questions. Like how a forest’s biodiversity is changing under climate change or what species can survive in given conditions. That’s good news for Xmas trees, and great news for ecological conservation in general.

One particular organisation, Global Forest Watch, is doing this on a grand scale. They’ve created an online platform that combines hundreds of thousands of satellite images, high-tech data processing and crowd-sourcing. With the technology in hand, they’re able to provide near real-time data on the world’s forests. This in turn allows governments, NGOs, and the public to better manage forests, track illegal deforestation and more.


5. Data mining wombs?!

It sounds too creepy to be true, but it is. Supermarkets can now know you’re pregnant before even your family does.

An infamous news story came in a few years ago of a father complaining to US retailer Target that his teenage daughter was receiving advertisements for baby products. As it turned out, he later apologised after his daughter told him that they were right.

What had happened was quite simple. Target had tracked the purchasing habits of the customer (and many like her) to accurately predict when their customers were expecting.

This level of retailer knowledge is now commonplace. Every time you use your card or mobile to pay for something, online or in-store, you’re sharing intimate details about your purchases with retailers. And many of those retailers are studying those details to figure out what you like, what you need, and which discounts are most likely to win your custom.

As a consumer, this can be pretty useful. Data Agency Tamoco say that that data is helping retailers understand consumer trends in great detail. This means your preferences are identified quicker and more accurately. Your in-store experiences are also improved, with demographic and purchasing data telling retailers where to open up, and how to physically arrange their stores.

It’s not all fun and games for retailers though. Closer to home, the EU has made moves to give consumers greater control over their data in the form of the almighty GDPR. Retailers must now obtain consent from customers before bombarding them with promotions and adding them to mailing lists. Companies are also expected to report any data breaches within 72 hours. Before 2018, companies could withhold information on such breaches, and many chose to do just that. Following GDPR, it constitutes a crime.


Doing cool things with data

So there you have it, I’ve gone from a word lover to data fanatic in the space of 18 months. So much so that I’ll be sharing data stories from time to time to get more of you on side. If you’re interested more in what Data³ do, and how we’re helping businesses do cool things with data, check us out and connect.