Big Funders, Big Data: The Growing Quest to Learn More About Global Health

Back in 2015, when Bloomberg Philanthropies teamed up with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to launch a $100 million Data for Health initiative, we learned something surprising: 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.

That's right: Public health officials don't know exactly why most of the world's people die. In turn, that data shortcoming makes it hard to properly target public health resources to prevent premature deaths and raise life expectancies. It's natural that Mike Bloomberg, whose long seen better data as the key to problem solving, would want to get a handle on things. 

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

A lack of hard information on why people die isn't the only glaring hole in global data. There are a lot of others, too, which is why we weren't so surprised to see that the Gates Foundation has awarded the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) a 10-year, $279 million grant to expand its work tracking how global health dollars are being spent and spearhead new ways to inform policymakers about global health priorities. (A portion of the funds will also fund core support to IHME students, faculty, and staff.)

The $279 million give marks the largest private donation in the University of Washington’s history and brings Gates’ total grantmaking to the university to $1.25 billion. 

Of course, this monster grant doesn’t come as much of a shock since the foundation gave over $105 million to the University of Washington to help create the IHME back in 2007.

You can see why billionaires like Bloomberg and Gates, both of whom made their fortunes in the information economy, would give big for massive data projects. Each of these funders has tens of billions of dollars to dispose of, and each is playing the long game—searching for the right ways to deploy vast wealth to improve global health over many years to come. Better data is seen as foundational to doing such giving right. Maybe even more importantly, a wide range of other players working on global health could benefit from better data. 

Still, not everyone is so sure this is the best use of global health dollars. The most common critique is that the money spent on data gathering could be better spent backing actions to save lives right now. More broadly, the Gates Foundation has been knocked in the past for directing too many grant dollars to researchers and policy wonks in rich countries and not enough to actual poor people. In 2014, a study published by Grain, a research group in Barcelona, found that most of the grant funding by Gates for agriculture went to organizations in the U.S. and Europe.

Regardless of arguments on both sides, big data projects are looming ever larger in the global health space, and it will be interesting to see how these ambitious efforts translate on the ground. 

The effort between Bloomberg and the Australian government is especially intriguing. It's a four-year project to help governments, public health leaders, aid organizations, and nonprofits by funding new methods, tools and systems for gathering more accurate health data. What, exactly, will these players do with better information about why millions of people die? 

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

Before wrapping up here, we should mention that the Hewlett Foundation is also keenly interested in funding new data projects to tackle global health and development challenges. Over the past few years, the foundation has committed millions to data projects out of its Global Development and Population program. Its latest was a $1.5 million grant to the United Nations Foundation’s Data2X program, which is “intended to improve the availability, quality, and use of gender data for decision making as a part of the Sustainable Development Goals framework and beyond.”

Gender equity is a great example of where new data is needed. Even as the importance of empowering women to spur development has become widely recognized, there are many unanswered questions about the role that women actually play in developing economies. One area where Hewlett is digging for new data is around women and the informal economy—a dimension of economic life in poor countries that's hugely important, but where good data is scarce. Hewlett is trying to change that, laying the groundwork for better policies. 

Gates is also working in the gender data space, as we've reported. Last year, Melinda Gates announced an $80 million investment from the Gates Foundation designed to “close gender data gaps” and empower women and girls worldwide.