It’s surprising how little data is available on the rates of everything from disease to employment in poor countries, says Trevor Mundell, president of global health for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Governments and international organizations and researchers still aren’t collecting basic statistics on a lot of major diseases in Africa. Says Mundell, “[For example] there’s a complete absence of solid data around what the dimensions of [typhoid] in Africa.”
There’s a similar problem with dengue, a very unpleasant virus that’s spread by mosquitoes. This makes it hard to set priorities for health spending, he adds. “How do you plan for the future if you don’t even know the state of the present?”
The data gap is especially noticeable when it comes to statistics on girls and women, and ending the inequality they face is a major focus of the global goals. For instance, it’s hard to get solid, comparable numbers across all countries on everything from maternal mortality to how well girls are transitioning from school into jobs to what assets women own. In some cases — domestic violence against women is a classic example — many countries don’t consider gathering this data a top concern.
As for the huge pool of data we do have — advocates say much of it is difficult to get hold of because it’s being hoarded by everyone from U.N. agencies to researchers.
Jody Heymann is dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and founding director of the affiliated World Policy Analysis Center, which is trying to gather much of this data in one place and make it comparable from country to country. Her dream is to inspire app developers to find a way to get it on smartphones.