The spread of the Ebola virus throughout West Africa has devastated thousands , and has become a global public health crisis as it threatens to spread beyond the region.
Public health workers scramble to contain the virus while treating an increasing number of victims, but another threat looms as a result of this pandemic: food security. Food access already hangs in tenuous balance from a technology and information gap, and the virus threatens to plunge the region into a major food crisis.
Ebola has torn through Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, hitting hard the “bread basket” regions, directly impacting critical agricultural activity in the region. It has already vastly disrupted food commerce as farmers and their families fall victim to the virus, leaving fields abandoned and crops un-harvested, contributing to food shortages, Reuters reports.
"Hunger will kill us where Ebola failed," Pa Sorie, a 61-year-old rice and cassava farmer in northern Sierra Leone, told Reuters.
For Sierra Leone, 40 percent of the economy is agriculture-based, and government officials in Sierra Leone and Liberia acknowledge Ebola as a threat to food security and the need to act quickly.
What may be most alarming, however, is that this outbreak and subsequent food crisis may be directly related to climate change issues in the area, according to a 2013 report by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
As a result of climate change and deforestation in the region, fruit bats infected with the virus have shifted their migration patterns to more populated areas, causing rapid spread of the virus across the region.
Likewise, climate change further impacts staple crops like rice through seasonal droughts, strong winds, thunderstorms, landslides, heat waves, floods, and changing rainfall patterns, making crop production extremely vulnerable.
But can big data play a role in diverting the catastrophic effects of climate change on global food security and the spread of infectious disease like Ebola?
At the The Makerere University Climate Change Research and Innovations Centre (MUCCRI), students are addressing just that.
In partnership with USAID and FHI360, MUCCRI focuses on building a hub of academic, professional development, and research excellence in climate science, climate adaptation and related disciplines. This initiative aims to build capacity to address critical issues of climate change as it relates to agriculture through research, policy development and implementation.
Students are conducting original research to create and share complex datasets, building a comprehensive database from which other agricultural researchers, agronomists, and other stakeholders both domestic and international, can draw conclusions. Maintaining high data quality and data management standards will be critical to the project as data policies and implementation practices are developed as a direct result of this research.
In September 2014, FHI360 invited aWhere Data Analyst, Courtney Cohen, to conduct a training for 30 MUCCRI students and other project stakeholders about best practices for data management and analysis techniques. Courtney discussed how the students could increase their data management capacity and maintain high data quality while conducting their climate change research.
100% of the participants reported that the data management training was relevant to their projects. Following the training, Courtney followed up with one on one discussions with participants to continue helping them build their capacity for data management.
We are anxious to see the results of this important research to increase our knowledge and ability to proactively address climate change as it relates to agriculture, animal patterns, and the spread of other infectious diseases like Ebola in the future.
Where have you seen big data have impact on global issues? Do you think big data or technology has a place in food security efforts or climate change initiatives? Comment below or to learn more, please contact us today.