31 May 2017

Africa: Could Big Data Help End Hunger on the Continent?

Photo: OMS/C. Black
Des enfants souffrant de malnutrition aigue reçoivent des aliments enrichis et des antibiotiques.

Computer algorithms power much of modern life from our Facebook feeds to international stock exchanges. Could they help end malnutrition and hunger in Africa? The International Center for Tropical Agriculture thinks so.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture has spent the past four years developing the Nutrition Early Warning System, or NEWS.

The goal is to catch the subtle signs of a hunger crisis brewing in Africa as much as a year in advance.

CIAT says the system uses machine learning. As more information is fed into the system, the algorithms will get better at identifying patterns and trends. The system will get smarter.

Information Technology expert Andy Jarvis leads the project.

"The cutting edge side of this is really about bringing in streams of information from multiple sources and making sense of it. ... But it is a huge volume of information and what it does, the novelty then, is making sense of that using things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and condensing it into simple messages," he said.

Other nutrition surveillance systems exist, like FEWSnet, the Famine Early Warning System Network which was created in the mid-1980s.

But CIAT says NEWS will be able to draw insights from a massive amount of diverse data enabling it to identify hunger risks faster than traditional methods.

"What is different about NEWS is that it pays attention to malnutrition, not just drought or famine, but the nutrition outcome that really matters, malnutrition especially in women and children. For the first time, we are saying these are the options way ahead of time. That gives policy makers an opportunity to really do what they intend to do which is make the lives of women and children better in Africa,” said Dr. Mercy Lung’aho, a CIAT nutrition expert.

While food emergencies like famine and drought grab headlines, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture says chronic malnutrition affects one in four people in Africa, taking a serious toll on economic growth and leaving them especially vulnerable in times of crisis.

Senior policy officer Olufunso Somorin is with the Africa Development Bank.

“In 2030, 13 years from now, Africa is going to have 200 million children below the age of five. Now once a child is stunted or misses a level of nourishment at that age, it affects that child psychologically, economically, socially. So a stunted child in the future is actually a stunted economy. So linking issues of nutrition at individual level to Africa’s development and transformation on a broader scale is important," said Somorin.

CIAT says African governments will be able to access NEWS via “nutrition dashboards” where they can get risk assessments, alerts, and recommendations.

The system is expected to become operational in four African countries, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Nigeria, by year's end.

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