How big data can track the pain points in population growth

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There are expected to be more than 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, and you can expect that type of population growth to strain the world’s resources like energy, water and food. But it turns out big data tools will be particularly adept at helping organizations track — and attempt to solve — severe shortages in these resources.

Take Recorded Future, which mines data from the web, social media, and government and financial sites to create reports around topics like early signs of food and water shortages. The reports analyze how those conditions lead to unrest, terrorism and conflict. For example, Recorded Future wrote a blog post a couple years ago showing the link between crop shortages, lack of food, extreme weather and political instability in Yemen.

As Recorded Future’s CEO Chris Ahlberg explained to me in an interview, “Hungry people will do all kinds of things.” A substantial part of Recorded Future’s customers are governments and folks in the intelligence community, so Ahlberg couldn’t go into many specifics, but he said that he could envision organizations like World Banks, also using similar big data info to create aid and policies.

Other companies are using Twitter data, in particular — leveraging its real-time nature — to track the pain points in population growth, such as the spread of diseases. A recent study by medical researchers at Harvard showed that Twitter was substantially faster at tracking the spread of cholera in Haiti than more traditional methods (this was in the wake of the earthquake, but you can imagine the same techniques could be used on a regular basis).

Cell phone data can be particularly valuable for studying population growth. Because cell phones tend to be with people all the time and billions of people in the world have cheap cell phones, they can often stand in for location data. Ahlberg says Recorded Future can, for example, isolate its analysis to pulling data from only mobile devices in Yemen.

A project developed by Nathan Eagle, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health and MIT Media Lab, is compiling millions of phone records to help development groups make important decisions like finding the best region in Kenya to launch a malaria eradication campaign or enabling health care providers to discover abnormal patterns in cholera outbreaks in Rwanda.

Finally, big data analytics can also help with management of resources directly, such as smarter water systems. IBM (s ibm) has been a leader in this space, and Opower, a venture-backed energy software startup, told me that it has been transitioning to using Hadoop, via startup Cloudera, to run heavy analytics on the utility energy data it crunches in the cloud. Sensors and analytics can lead to much smarter cities, buildings and transportation (for more info on that read our report for GigaOM Pro, “Key Technologies for the Future of the Smart City”, subscription required).

Image courtesy of Vinoth Chandar.

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What does population growth have to do with shortages? Did everyone until now in human history have access to lots of food, water and energy?

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