How big data and cloud are supporting life-saving non-profit operations
Tue 28 Mar 2017 | Aaron Auld
Aaron Auld, CEO at EXASOL, discusses how big data analytics and cloud technologies are offering incredible new opportunities in the not-for-profit sector…
Cloud, in every form, is a boon for non-profit. Out of necessity, charities in particular have very strong governance in place to scrutinise the value of any investment and have thin resources that must be utilised as efficiently as possible – particularly if reliant on fundraising. They will often have little IT infrastructure and no in-house IT support, so the opportunity to outsource to the cloud where they pay for only what it is needed at that point in time is compelling.
Non-profits were quick to adopt everyday office and collaboration tools such as mail, document sharing and conferencing on a flexible per-user basis. However, what’s really interesting is how non-profits can access innovative cutting-edge services such as data analytics and machine learning that would have only been possible by joining the queue at a major university computing centre in years gone by.
Research scientists can crunch terabytes of data in the cloud and scale to suit their needs – and funding levels – in an effort to solve big problems like predicting crop failures, understanding societal and health trends, or eradicating disease.
Technology is evolving and improving all the time. This is driven by large-scale investment, automation and economies of scale that are simultaneously improving capabilities and driving down cost. For example, new services tailored to the Internet of Things are spawning projects to collect data from passive and active wearable sensors. Such data can be used to help doctors support patients at home, or it can be analysed for trends to understand the lifestyle factors that lead to a risk of diabetes in a given community.
In a recent collaboration with Antibiotic Research UK, it was evident how using cloud with business intelligence tools can help nonprofits discover new insights.
Antibiotic Research UK is the world’s first charity created to develop new antibiotics in the fight against superbugs. The team wanted to better understand antibiotic prescription in the UK, and they were able to rapidly analyse more than 602 million rows of NHS prescription data using business intelligence software combined with a fast analytics database running in the cloud.
“Cloud offers tantalising new opportunities for innovation by powering real-time insights”
By cross-referencing this data against a deprivation index of English communities, the research found that while the number of antibiotic prescriptions is coming down across England, GP practices in the most deprived parts of the country were prescribing 20% more and, worryingly, antibiotic prescriptions are on the increase in these deprived areas.
Such insights are tremendously valuable, but an even bigger challenge is understanding what’s happening as it happens. Here, the cloud again offers tantalising new opportunities for innovation by powering real-time insights that businesses such as retail have been quick to seize.
The Zambian government has an ambitious campaign to eliminate malaria from its country by 2020 and has partnered with PATH, a global leader in health innovation. PATH and business intelligence software provider Tableau are collaborating to help Zambia in its fight through the innovative ‘Visualise No Malaria’ project, which combines cloud computing with big data analytics to produce operational maps that target field resources at those areas where mosquitoes could spread malaria.
The project engaged a number of cloud partners including EXASOL, data blending specialist Alteryx and Tableau to support research and collaboration. Using an in-memory analytics engine through Amazon Web Services has made it possible for the project to access and analyse massive geospatial, weather and disease data very quickly and render visualisations on demand using live data.
Such intelligence, rendered as maps, provides Zambia’s health coordinators with information to see where disease is spreading, predict where an outbreak will occur next and take action accordingly.
For PATH, analysing the data available to it enables the organisation to inform Zambian health officials on the front line about malaria outbreaks, which means quicker responses to combat the disease, and ultimately means more lives saved.
Collaboration and connectivity
Another key challenge is collaboration, and this is an important area for cloud. For example, the ‘Visualise No Malaria’ project engaged a cloud-based text messaging company to provide communication between data collectors and local headquarters. This helped the project to gather, refine and clarify data, even in places with little or extremely patchy internet connectivity.
From on-the-ground collaboration software used by volunteers, all the way up to the scientific research teams, using cloud-based analytics and visualisations is vital in supporting the government’s efforts.
Beyond Zambia and its fight against malaria, the cloud is enabling non-profits to take action at a global level using the most advanced tools in a way that has never before been possible.