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Big data gets another blessing from Bill Gates

Screenshot from Bill Gates' talk as IMHE unveiled a new online tool March 5th.

Sometimes seeing data presented in the right way can change your entire view of the world. 

Bill Gates says that’s what happened to him 20 years ago, with global health:

“I was completely stunned by the burden of disease in poor countries, to see that diarrhea was killing literally millions of children, and that some of those causes of diarrhea, like rotavirus, were preventable," he said. "There was a vaccine available in rich countries, but ironically, not in poor countries."

Gates says seeing that data is what sent his foundation working on diseases in the developing world.


He made his comments in order to praise an online tool for visualizing health data developed at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. (Click "listen" above to hear an excerpt from his talk.)

“In almost every endeavor, but particularly in health, it’s the areas where we go in and do a good job with measurement that we make progress,” said Gates.

The data compiled by the IHME, with funding from Gates, shows what’s making people sick in each of 187 countries around the world. Gates has long advocated compiling that type of information as a guide to where global health money should be spent.

More money for continuous updates?

The Gates Foundation is considering increasing its funding to IHME, in order to update the health data on a continuous basis. Typically, major databases get updates only every few years, at best. Having regular updates would improve the accuracy of the online tool.

“Why should we be waiting five years, ten years for this to emerge?” said Trevor Mundel, president of the Gates Foundation’s global health program, who earned his doctorate in mathematics. “When a new piece of evidence, a new big piece of data comes in, we would like to see this updated …  a button pushed, and on the portal you can access it.”


For the story of how the number crunchers at IHME learned from Netflix how to digest vast amounts of data, see this explanation by KPLU partner Tom Paulson at Humanosphere.

The health database also gives a fresh view of health and disease in the United States, as reported yesterday on KPLU.

“It’s the most comprehensive effort in history to produce complete estimates … on health outcomes,” said University of Washington president Michael Young.

Keith Seinfeld has been KPLU’s Health & Science Reporter since 2001, and prior to that covered the Environment beat. He’s been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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