A recent series in the Washington Post opened my eyes to an alarming situation in Middle America. I was quite surprised to learn that the death rate of white women in the United States between the ages of 25 and 55 had risen significantly over the past decade. And when the Post investigated this disturbing trend, it discovered that the death rate of rural white women in one county in Texas rose by 169% for women of the ages of 45 to 54. Meanwhile, in a county in Alabama, it jumped by 170% for women aged 35 to 44.
One of the articles posed this interesting question. “Why, after 50 years of unabated progress in life expectancy for every conceivable group of Americans – men, women, young, old, rich, poor, high-school dropouts, college graduates, rural, urban, white, black, Hispanic or Asian — had one demographic group in the last decade experienced a significant increase in premature deaths?”
As someone who has worked in the high-tech industry for more than 20 years, I had my own questions to ask about this disruption of “unabated progress.” How can we make the world more prosperous and improve lives in the face of these upward mortality trends? How can we – you and I and the rest of the world – use our collective wisdom to solve apparently overlooked societal issues like the ones these women face?
The Post articles highlighted many of the factors that contributed to the deaths of these women – opioid abuse, heaving drinking, smoking, and suicides, to name a few. One of the articles talked about how some of the women now smoke, suffer from obesity, and drink themselves to death at a rate greater than their grandmothers did. To me, these trends are an indication of society going backwards.
I certainly don’t know the answer to these problems, but I do believe we have tools at our fingertips today that can help us find the solutions. I believe we can go beyond just identifying the conditions that led these women to their deaths and use tools like Big Data to take a deeper look into the root causes. Data may help us figure out if the conditions that are giving rise to these death rates are socioeconomic factors, or if there are factors that we have overlooked and just not thought of yet.
I believe a deeper dive in data on specific geographical, gender, socioeconomic, and other indicators will lead us to insights that will help us turn trends like this around. In many cases, the data is already right at our fingertips today, but too often we’re not yet seeing all that it could reveal. But with the right tools, data could point us to the solutions that could literally save lives.
This is in fact already happening here in the United States. The state of Indiana recognized that from 1999 to 2009, there was a 500% increase in the rate of drug overdose deaths. To reverse this trend, the state developed a comprehensive data-driven management system to gain insight into the drug abuse crisis. Using crime lab drug data, the state is seeing correlations into drug use and predicting where hot spots could arise to drive down use and provide resources to combat the problem.
This is how the power of data can save lives.
Use data to improve the world
I’m not the only one that thinks data can unlock the answers to many societal issues. The United Nations (UN) recognizes that technology – and specifically data – will play a big role in the achievement of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were ratified in September 2015. In fact, Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, made the statement that the data revolution is giving the world powerful tools that can help usher in a more sustainable future. Thus, the UN has created the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Goals, which will help support data-driven decisions in the quest to end poverty, combat climate change, and ensure a healthy life for all.
Will the UN’s efforts help the rural women in the United States? Perhaps not. Or perhaps yes. As the global goals prompt the increase of data collection, governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private businesses, and everyday citizens could tease out information that could perhaps help these women.
As part of our vision and purpose to help the world run better and improve people’s lives, SAP is doing its part. We are helping customers like the state of Indiana create solutions that can indeed save people’s lives. We are also working with other customers to advance the achievement of the UN goals.
Our collective wisdom can – and is – making a difference. And someday soon, hopefully it will help the women in rural America and others around the world in similar situations.
For more on how data and technology can help improve lives, see Catapulting Africa’s Poor Farmers Into The Digital Age.
This article originally appeared on Digitalist Magazine, in the Improving Lives section. See here.