As Bloomberg Spends More to Save Lives, He Wants Better Data on How People Die

Michael Bloomberg has a  famously voracious appetite for data. He's also deep into efforts to improve global health as a philanthropist. So it was probably only a matter of time before these two interests came together in some big way. 

Last week, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that it was teaming up with the Australian government to launch a $100 million Data for Health initiative to tackle the little known but remarkable problem: An estimated 65 percent of worldwide deaths go unrecorded. That’s around 35 million deaths each year. Even more deaths aren't properly documented. 

These mystery deaths cause a big data gap, which then makes it harder to improve public health. Think of it this way: If large groups of people are dying and governments and organizations don’t know about it, much less why they’re dying, it becomes difficult to prioritize public health challenges or deploy resources to areas of need.

Even if the stakes weren't so high, you could see why a geek like Mike would find this data gap maddening. "Reliable data is absolutely essential to problem solving," he said, "and nowhere is it more important than in public health."

Related: Body Count: Mike Bloomberg's Killer Formula for Effective Philanthropy

The Data for Health initiative’s goal is to provide governments, public health leaders, and aid organizations with better health data through improved collection systems and tools. These new systems and tools include improving the recording of births and deaths and better collection methods for public health surveys. The surveys will be used to monitor "major risk factors for early death" like chronic diseases and other premature death factors like poor nutrition and yes, tobacco use.

Data for Health will operate in 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next four years.

It’s clear that the giving of Bloomberg Philanthropies is largely data driven. There isn’t a formula here, at least that we know of, but it does look like BP is keenly focused on the math of saving lives with Mike's billions. In fact, we named Bloomberg the "most effective philanthropist" of 2014 because of his starkly utilitarian approach:

Bloomberg makes such a difference because he focuses big money on low-hanging fruit. His top bets are on curbing deaths from smoking and traffic accidents in poor countries—challenges we know how to tackle.

Consider Bloomberg's crusade on smoking. It’s one of the biggest killers in the developing world, and it’s estimated that some 8 million people will die per year through the 2030s. But saving lives by reducing smoking rates is not rocket science. Developed countries have already shown what works. So you can see why Bloomberg Philanthropies has become the unmatched leader in anti-tobacco funding; it's committed $600 million to the cause since 2007, one of the biggest outlays of cash by any funder for a single issue in recent times that we know of. 

Related: Bloomberg and Gates Fund a New Kind of Fight Against Tobacco

Or consider Bloomberg's major investment in road safety. One million people die from traffic accidents annually and tens of millions of people are injured. Bending that mortality curve also isn’t rocket science—pass more no-brainer safety laws (we’re talking seatbelts and helmets) and make the roads safer to traverse. Bloomberg Philanthropies got into traffic safety in 2010 by committing $125 million to reduce road deaths in some of the largest countries in the world. Since then, it’s committed an additional $125 million toward its Global Road Safety initiative.

Related: Bloomberg’s Traffic Safety Program Casting a Wider Net

Despite all his giving, Bloomberg has barely scratched the surface of a $35 billion fortune, and we wouldn't be surprised to see him expand to other global public health issues in a big way in coming years. How else is he going to push boatloads of money out the door to meet the terms of the Giving Pledge? Yet without better data, it may be hard to identify the best targets of opportunity. 

So maybe the way to see the Data for Health initiative is that it's partly a fact-finding effort by an ambitious global health funder who's keen to write bigger checks—once he's figure where those checks should go.