Big data: big hope or big risk?

ID-100236071Hailed as the latest technological advance that could revolutionise development and agriculture (along with other sectors), “big data” has been the focus of several recent articles, most notably a series of articles published by SciDev.Net. In June 2013 a UN High level panel called for a “data revolution” emphasising the need for better data to track progress towards development goals. But what is big data and how can it aid poverty and hunger eradication?

Big data is not just large amounts of information but rather it’s about integrating infrastructure to collect data at every step of the development process and designing new data collection methods that can track development goals effectively. In particular, big data is being hailed as the big fix for the lack of reliable official statistics in developing countries. But there is no clear (agreed upon) definition of big data, one article stating “it is data generated through our increasing use of digital devices and web-supported tools and platforms in our daily lives”. Due to our increasingly digital society, the amount of data (from social media platforms, mobile phones, online financial services etc.) has grown enormously. A much quoted statistic states that up to 90% of the world’s data was created over just two years (2010–2012). The aim for big data is to use this sizeable knowledge source to add value to society. Driving interest in evidence-based policy making, big data is also being termed a movement, one that aims to turn data into decision making.

In May 2012 Global Pulse published a White Paper entitled Big Data for Development: Opportunities & Challenges, which highlighted the opportunities big data provides. In particular they explore the role of big data in describing what is happening, predicting what may happen and explore the reasons behind why things happen.

For agriculture, big data means information can be collected along the whole supply chain including from supermarkets, weather sensing equipment, digital images, and research papers. These data sets can then be transformed through analytics into actionable information. But this conversion is rife with complexities in terms of managing, processing, sharing and using huge amounts of data. [Read more…]

ODI research: Climate change mitigation is development

cover-zero-poverty-stripes-blueIn 2015 the international community will come together to discuss action that needs to be taken to address climate change and global development. The Overseas Development Institute has undertaken research on the impacts climate change will likely have on development efforts and the news is not good.

 
The progress the world has made in reducing poverty and hunger, improving access to water and health is at risk of being reversed. Between 1990 and 2010 the number of people in poverty declined by 700 million but many face the risk of falling back into poverty under conditions of climate change. As sea levels rise, temperatures increase and more frequent extreme events occur crops yields will decline and whole areas important for agriculture, many heavily populated, such as deltas in Bangladesh, will be lost. In Africa, crop yields are projected to be reduced by some 90% by 2080 and wheat production will disappear altogether. These changes to agricultural productivity are estimated to increase food prices, increase hunger (by an estimated 250 million people) and exacerbate poverty. Meeting the needs of a growing global population is an urgent challenge made significantly harder by these projected productivity declines. A 55% increase in global crop production would be required to meet increasing global population demand by 2030. By 2050 to 2100, an additional 165,000 to 250,000 children could die each year compared to a world without climate change.

 
Access to drinking water, which has been improved for some 2.1 billion people in the world in the last 20 years, will become more of a challenge. In Africa 350 million to 600 million people will be exposed to water stress by 2050. An extra 2.5 billion people will be at risk of dengue fever and an extra 40 to 60 million people in Africa alone will be at risk of malaria under climate change. Migration will also increase and by 2100, it’s estimated that climate change will cause annual economic of losses of between 5 and 20% of global GDP.

 

Much hope for the future rests on agreements met by the international community at the next Conference of the Parties in Peru of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last Friday, and in the Post-2015 development agenda. Mitigation is urgently needed if temperatures are kept below a 2C threshold, we are currently on a trajectory that will see far higher temperature increases, as too is adaptation, since we are committed to some degree of impacts of climate change.

 

A recent report explored options for how climate change could be included in the post-2015 agenda, in particular through mainstreaming climate change amongst all development goals or having a standalone climate change goal. How climate change will be addressed is important. That it will be addressed is vital, to the health, wealth, welfare and survival of people around the world.

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Status of development, regulation and adoption of GM agriculture in Africa: Views and positions of stakeholder groups, Adenle, A., Morris, E.J., Parayil, G.

Investing in people and evidence for sustainable farming, SciDev.net

World Food Day: New Ranking Tool to Guide Investment in Biofortified Crops Launched, HarvestPlus

Past environmental pressures affect current biodiversity loss, European Commission

Commentary – Innovation for Sustainable Intensification in Africa, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Global Hunger Index Calls for Greater Resilience-Building Efforts to Boost Food and Nutrition Security, IFPRI

Report Finds Major Challenges to Meeting Global Food and Nutrition Needs by 2050, Digital Journal [Read more…]

A landscape approach to reconcile competing land uses

LandscapeA “landscape approach” to rural development is gaining in traction in international policy and now a new set of guidelines published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on the practicalities of implementing resource management plans across whole landscapes.

The idea behind the landscape approach is that multiple benefits from and pressures on an area can be balanced. Resource extraction, agriculture, conservation, and activities contributing to local livelihoods are all considered in an integrated manner. For each landscape there are multiple users and uses, each of which impact on each other. For example, chemicals used on agricultural land may run off into waterways, impacting the habitats of aquatic species and fish catch. As Terry Sunderland, a principal scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research and co-author of the paper published in PNAS, states, “People do not live in sectors or in departments, they live holistically. It is important that we collectively visualize how a landscape will look, for whom it needs to work and how it needs to function”.

The approach is yet to be ingrained in development activities perhaps because of the various definitions of what a landscape is. Often considered in physical terms, the paper in PNAS authored by Sayer et al, defines a landscape as, “an arena in which entities, including humans, interact according to rules (physical, biological, and social) that determine their relationships”. People are at the heart of this definition and the idea of multi-functional landscapes has been embraced in environmental management. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Let’s tackle inequality head on for development after the MDGs, The Guardian

USAID, AfDB, Government of Sweden Announce Agriculture Fast Track, USAID

Forests and food security: back on the global agenda, Thomson Reuters Foundation

The ‘superwheat’ that boosts crops by 30%: Creation of new grain hailed as biggest advance in farming in a generation, The Daily Mail

Managing food price instability: Critical assessment of the dominant doctrine, Galtier, F. 2013

Adesina’s Brazil visit, agricultural transformation agenda and the farmers, Peoples Daily

High-tech: The best solution to take farming to the next level, The Citizen

Food aid for the 21st century (Opinion), Chicago Tribune

What will it take for policymakers to act on climate change?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Cambridge-based scientists develop ‘superwheat’, BBC News

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Improving child nutrition. The achievable imperative for global progress, UNICEF

The World Needs Genetically Modified Foods, The Wall Street Journal

Grassroot-level innovations may hold the key to global challenges, The Guardian

World food prices rise 1 pct in March – FAO

Primary commodity prices and global food security. Why farmers still struggle when food prices rise, Thomas Lines, Green House

Millions face starvation as world warms, say scientists, The Guardian

Half a million Kenyans and Ethiopians face conflict, hunger due to dam – AlertNet

Biofuels: ‘Irrational’ and ‘worse than fossil fuels’, BBC News

World Bank: Africa’s economic growth to outpace average, BBC News [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

India farmers think big but grow micro to enrich their soil, The Guardian

The radical nature of development in the near future is already assured, The Guardian Poverty Matters Blog

Africa must get real about Chinese ties, Financial Times

Harsh deal climate in sub-Saharan Africa, Financial Times

Goldilocks Had It Right: How to Build Resilient Societies in the 21st Century, New Security Beat

The G8 and land grabs in Africa, GRAIN

The solution to Africa’s woes lies with Africans, not the west, The Guardian

East Africa: East African Farmers to Gain From Disease Resistant Banana, AllAfrica

Climate Conversations – “Part app, part map” tracks Amazon forest loss, AlertNet

Climate Conversations – Threshing mills make life less of a grind for West African women, AlertNet

World poverty: Can the G8 deliver on the promise it made at Gleneagles?, The Guardian

Mark Lynas: truth, treachery and GM food, The Guardian

Technology drives Africa transformation, Financial Times

Amplified Greenhouse Effect Shifts North’s Growing Seasons, NASA

What we’ve been reading this week

Every week we summarise the news stories and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Does the future of farming in Africa lie in the private sector?, The Guardian Poverty Matters Blog

Global irrigated area at record levels, but expansion slowing, Worldwatch Institute

Should we label genetically modified food?, The Guardian Poverty Matters Blog

UN blames food price rises on trading in agricultural commodities, The Guardian

Climate conversations – Action on agriculture needed at upcoming UN climate talks, AlertNet

‘Seeds of hope’ for flooded regions of Nigeria, Seed Quest

The lottery of life, The Economist

Inconvenient truths about corruption and development, Overseas Development Institute

Strategies for combating climate change in drylands agriculture, CCAFS

Ghana’s Sustained Agricultural Revolution

Ghana is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa likely to meet both the Millennium Development Goals of halving the proportion of people in poverty, and the proportion of people who are hungry, by 2015.

In a study of Ghana’s story IFPRI experts have called the country ‘a prime candidate to champion economic transformation in Africa.’ They state that Ghana should grab the ‘unique opportunity for the front-running African countries to set examples on how to achieve economic transformation and prosperity on the continent’.

But there is a side to this narrative that deserves even more attention: Ghana’s quiet and steady agricultural revolution.

According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Ghana’s agricultural sector has grown by an average of about 5% per year during the past 25 years, making it one of the world’s top performers in agricultural growth. Further successes include:

  • Between 1990 and 2004, Ghana cut hunger levels by 75%.
  • Undernourishment went down to 8% by 2003, from 34% in 1991.
  • Child malnutrition declined, with the proportion of infants underweight falling from 30% in 1988 to 17% in 2008.
    • Political and economic reforms reduced the percentage of the population living in poverty from 52% in 1991-92 to 28.5% in 2005-06.
    • Rural poverty fell from 64% to 40% between 1981 and 2007.
    • By 2005/07, staple food production per person was more than 80% higher than it was in 1981/83. [Read more…]

Africa Human Development Report 2012: Towards a Secure Future

The UNDP recently released (in August 2012) a new report entitled Africa Human Development Report. It emphasizes the need for a coordinated, multi-sectoral approach to hunger and starvation in Africa. Rarely is the frustration and disbelief that the ‘spectre of famine…continues to haunt parts of Sub-Saharan Africa’, put so eloquently. Indeed, one in four Africans is undernourished and yet Sub-Saharan Africa has ‘ample agricultural land, plenty of water, a generally favourable climate for growing food’ and, in the past 10 years, ‘world-beating economic growth rates’ in some countries.

The solutions outlined in the report are not new: greater production, better access and increased human capability but this report goes further in saying these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for achieving food security. Good nutrition, robust policies, which support smallholder farmers, strong institutions and a focus on resilience are also critical. While many reports focus on some of these aspects, complex as they are on their own, this report gives an overview of the myriad of solutions that not only exist but that must come together to achieve food security.

Empowerment and human rights are also integral to the report: …’the basic right to food….is being violated in Sub-Saharan Africa to an intolerable degree’. Giving all people a voice and ensuring governments and are accountable to all people is an argument rarely used alongside the practical means of tackling hunger.

This report that lays out the issues in a powerful way, concluding that, ‘The challenge of food security in Sub-Saharan Africa is formidable, the timeframe for action tight and the investment required substantial. But the potential gains for human development are immense.’ Let’s hope the language is powerful enough to inspire action.