Cause of Death: What's the Deal With Bloomberg’s Ambitious Health Data Push?

As we know, Mike Bloomberg loves data. And, as we know, public health is his top philanthropic cause. So we could only imagine his reaction upon learning that there's very limited data worldwide on one of the most basic facts about public health—namely how people die.

To tackle this problem, and the global health data challenge more generally, Bloomberg Philanthropies last year announced that it was joining forces with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to launch a hugely ambitious data collection drive. The four-year, $100 million Data for Health initiative aims to help governments, public health leaders, as well as aid and nonprofit organizations by funding new methods, tools, and systems for gathering more accurate health data. The overall goal, here, is to improve the health data in low- and middle-income countries in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

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

Bloomberg recently announced the initiative's inaugural 18 countries including Bangladesh, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, China, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea (you can read the full list here), will be receiving support for activities including data analysis training, using mobile phones for health surveys, sharing best practices, and connecting in-country staff with global health networks. A particular focus of all this work is gaining a better understanding of causes of death and improving death certification.

(You might be thinking: Wait a minute, isn’t it called the Data for Health, not the Data for Death initiative? We had the same reaction, until we thought for two seconds about which name for this project is more inviting.)

According to the World Health Organization, around two-thirds of all deaths around the world go unrecorded—that’s around 35 million people. Also, of the over 30 percent of deaths that are recorded by a death certificate, 75 percent of those fail to name a specific cause of death.

You can see why this is a problem. If governments, aid organizations, and nonprofits working to improve the health of those living in low and middle income countries don’t know why people are dying, how can they launch effective campaigns, much less allocate resources to where they are needed most? 

This data gap effectively ties the hands of those that want to see their country’s people live longer and healthier lives. Bloomberg’s Data for Health Initiative is working with major public health and other experts from major institutions like the CDC Foundation, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, and the World Health Organization.

The launch of this year’s 18 initiatives will be guided by each individual country’s government and its priorities. Once health priorities have been identified, Data for Health will provide each country government with two experts in data collection and analytics in addition to funding in-country staff.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg Philanthropies' other work to reduce preventabledeaths from well-known global killers goes on. 

Since 2007, it has dedicated over $600 million toward anti-tobacco campaigns, policy changes, and increasing public awareness about the dangers of smoking and other tobacco use. Why? Because tobacco use kills more people than AIDS and malaria combined, some 6 million people annually—with that number slated to rise in coming years. Yet not too many funders are paying attention to tobacco, making Bloomberg's giving here that much more important. 

Related: Need a Light? Definitely Not. But Better Data on Smoking Would be Great

Then there’s Bloomberg’s $250 million battle for increased road safety by supporting organizations working to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, enhancing drunk driving and speeding laws, and advocating for the increased use of safety measures such as motorcycle helmets, seat belts, and child car seats. Why? Because according to the WHO, an estimated 2.4 million people will die annually in traffic accidents by 2030, with most of those fatalities occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Already, this is the number one cause of death for people ages 15 to 29. But it's also an area where Bloomberg Philanthropies has a good chance of bending the curve—such as when it helped bring motorcycle helmet laws to Vietnam, a step that's already cutting accident deaths in that country. 

And let's not forget about Bloomberg’s drowning prevention program, which aims to reduce the number people dying from drowning each year—especially children. It’s estimated that 370,000 people die from drowning each year with over 90 percent of those deaths occurring in low and middle income countries. The age groups with the highest rates of death are adolescents and kids under five.

Related: Did You Know Child Drowning Was a “Global Killer?” We Didn’t Either, But Bloomberg Did

The moral of the story here is that Bloomberg doesn’t go after the bright and shiny causes in philanthropy. His giving can look rather pedestrian, banal even. But none of that matters, given the impact—namely, saving lives.