Will Data Mining Help Fight Malaria? Google.Org Thinks So

Malaria is one of those funding issues that generally falls outside of the scope of Google.org’s areas of interest. Though Google has made grants in the past toward fighting the disease, which kills around 400,000 children annually, those grants have been pretty sporadic. So it was interesting to see that Google.org recently made a $600,000 grant to Malaria No More. Even more interesting is what the money will be used for. 

Google.org is all about using innovation and technology to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, and its grant to Malaria No More falls neatly in line with that philosophy. The grant will be used for a data mining project in Nigeria, beginning with a partnership between Malaria No More and Sproxil, a Nigerian startup.

Related: In Google.org's Grantmaking, Plenty of Surprises

The NGO and the tech company—which, for the past five years, has been waging a war against the counterfeit drug market in Nigeria—are partnering to put unique authentication codes on Malaria medicines, including anti-malarials. Theft triggers a quick text message of the authentication code to Sproxil, which verifies that the drugs are not counterfeit, and makes note of the region from which the text was made. This allows the company to track the disease even as it battles fake drugs. 

Data, as we all know, can be tricky, and this is a case in point. Many people living in regions with a high prevalence of malaria take anti-malarial drugs as a preventative, not because they're actually infected—a fact that could potentially skew the data collected. To get things right, Google is lending out the services of some of its data scientists, and Malaria No More is partnering with the data mining company Palantir. Epidemiologists from Harvard and a few people from the Clinton Health Access Initiative are coming on board as well.

Though critics have voiced some valid concerns about the project—namely, that mathematical models only provide one component to understanding the spread of malaria—no one is arguing the importance of the potential mountain of data that the project can provide. This is an area Google knows well, since it has long tapped its search data to track infections, particularly the flu. Google.org Director Jacquelline Fuller explains:

You could see how that data moves, builds, and responds to things like change in the weather or climate or comorbidity with other diseases that can make people more susceptible. We’ve seen the power of having a proxy for real-time data on the incidence of disease. We get how powerful this could be.

The intersection of technology, innovation, and some of the world’s biggest challenges is right in Google.org’s philanthropic sweet spot. At Google, those main challenges include improving computer science education, supporting Bay Area nonprofits, female empowerment, and fighting human trafficking and child abuse. Google also funds topical issues, like the ongoing Ebola battle.

In addition, the foundation funds around 200 academic research projects annually, and some of those subjects are on the very cutting edge of science and technology.

Related: 3 Cutting Edge Topics Google Just Started Funding

By its own estimates, Google.org makes around $100 million in grants annually, its employees volunteer 80,000 hours, and it gives away $1 billion in products.