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Melinda Gates speaking at the tenth anniversary of the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health. (University of Washington Photo)

There is an almost overwhelming number of pressing global health issues today. Preparing for epidemics like Ebola, the increasing dangers of climate change, access to medicine and contraceptives, antibiotic-resistant infections — the list goes on and on.

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One thing that is essential to addressing all these issues is data. And the state of data about global health isn’t so great.

Philanthropist and former Microsoft exec Melinda Gates said this week that the data we have on global health is improving — in part because of projects undertaken by the Gates Foundation and other philanthropic organizations — but there’s still a long way to go.

Speaking at an event marking the tenth anniversary of the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health on Wednesday night, Gates said collaboration between science, tech, and global health organizations is one reason they’re starting to see more data.

“When you start to see how biology is coming together with computer science; how computer science and mathematical modeling are coming together with diseases; how we’re taking global health and looking at our local population… the amount of data that we’re finally getting and combing through is making us so much more knowledgeable about where the problems are,” she said. “Not just the problems at a scale level, but the problems at a community level and how to actually intervene.”

One local collaboration, between data analytics company Tableau and global health nonprofit PATH, is aiming to use data to eradicate Malaria in Zambia by 2020.

Marie-Reine Rutagwera (left) and Monde Mathew reviewing malaria surveillance data on a laptop as part of the Visualize no Malaria campaign. (PATH Photo / Gabe Bienczycki)

Another great example of data as a driving force is contraception access. Gates is a collaborator in Family Planning 2020, a global collaboration that is aiming to help 120 million women in developing countries access contraceptives.

“When we went to set the goal of how many women we thought we could realistically give voluntary access to contraceptives, the data was so bad I couldn’t believe it,” Gates said. “We were making point estimates off of data I would never have considered using in business at Microsoft.”

“One of the blocks was that we didn’t have a data system where we could really go around and have a good survey of data,” she said. So they built one.

Now the partnership has a system that allows local workers to go into women’s homes around the world and collect data using cell phones. They’re able to log data like how many women want access to contraceptives, why, and what is preventing them from accessing it, Gates said.

“We are learning what women are up against. Often they need their husband’s permission to have access to contraceptives. We’re learning about supply chain issues. We’re also developing new tools,” Gates said.

“There are all kinds of barriers, but let me tell you that every single one of them can be broken down,” she said.

Lack of access to contraceptives can have devastating effects on women and children. As Gates noted, when mothers space their births by three years, their child is twice as likely to make it to their first birthday. Mothers who aren’t able to spread out births are more likely to die in childbirth, and their children are less likely to survive into adulthood.

Gates also noted that having hard data on issues like this is not a silver bullet — understanding cultural and social nuances is equally important.

“When I think about science, I don’t just think about the hardcore numbers in science, it’s also the social science piece of it. These two have to marry,” she said. “Because you can have the best piece of technology in the world — you can have the best malaria vaccine or pill … and if you can’t get someone to accept why they should take it or to take it consistently, the best science can sit on the shelf and go absolutely nowhere.”

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