“Information is the oil of the 21st century, and analytics is the combustion engine”.

While a few years old, these comments by one leading analyst indicate the immense potential – and increasing need - for big data analytics to fuel positive societal change and development.

Big data has spawned a data industry. It has led to the arrival of data professionals - from data scientists to data architects to data analysts – and many governments and NGOs are actively trying to understand how they can apply big data to a variety of societal challenges – particularly humanitarian crises.

Every year, 15 million people die and millions more become seriously ill as a result of infectious diseases, while an estimated 1.8 billion people were affected by disaster in the last decade. According to UNISDR global data, over the past two decades, 1.35 million lives and $2.5 trillion have been lost to disasters.

Analysis of aggregated and anonymised large-scale mobile data has the potential to yield immense positive social and economic impact. Take the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak - the most widespread outbreak of the Ebola virus in history. The death toll was significant, as was socioeconomic disruption in the region. Governments are now turning to big data to help provide answers and improve humanitarian relief efforts and disaster preparedness, hoping to lessen the severity of crises like the Ebola outbreak.

The Vodafone Foundation today announced a pioneering programme in Ghana to use aggregated anonymised data to help the government track and control epidemics to prevent widespread outbreaks. The programme, one of the first of its kind in the world, will use aggregated anonymised mobile data to track real-time trends in population movement. The data is then analysed to provide life-saving insights during an epidemic. The programme is a good example of how big data can be used to gather valuable insights, which the government of Ghana can apply to a number of health and other sustainable development challenges, saving and improving lives.

“The use of mobile big data capabilities for disaster preparedness situatins is a key example of how the mobile industry is contributing to the SDGs,” says GSMA Director General Mats Granryd. “By combining mobility data with other data sources, operators can build a business case to support decision-making and planning by governments and NGOs across a wide variety of use cases

The opportunities for governments and NGOs are far-reaching, extending beyond public health to a variety of societal needs. During a natural disaster, big data analytics enables the identification of affected areas and helps humanitarian agencies more accurately aid evacuation, response and recovery efforts. In Japan, for example, mobile operators have reportedly worked with the government’s Disaster Management Bureau Cabinet Office to enable rescue teams to act quickly and prioritise the deployment of resources in the event of a large-scale disaster.

In urban planning, aggregated anonymised data can be used to optimise urban transport, predict crime hotspots or identify land use.

And when applied to climate change, anonymised data can be used to predict pollution problems days before they occur, allowing cities to take precautions to protect public health – from providing advice to people with respiratory problems to guiding traffic to alternative routes.

Furthermore, with ‘No poverty’ the first of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a recent World Bank study in Guatemala assessed whether aggregated, anonymised mobile data would be an accurate predictor of geographical poverty characteristics. As poverty patterns change frequently, having updated information is key for strategically targeting poverty reduction efforts.

Governments and humanitarian organisations have only just begun exploiting the potential of big data to improve decision-making. While measuring the impact of these data-driven decisions will be essential to make the case for long-term investment in big data innovations, governments and NGOs trying to solve societal issues should be assessing whether unlocking the power of anonymised big data could provide the answer to their problems.