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1/31/2013
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Bill Gates Touts Analytics To Solve Global Problems

In his foundation's annual letter, Microsoft co-founder says analytics are helping developing countries tackle health and education problems, urges setting clear goals.

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Bill Gates believes accurate measurements and concrete, tangible goals are central to improving conditions among the world's poorest populations. The Microsoft co-founder and former CEO presented the argument Wednesday in his annual letter outlining the endeavors the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation will support in the coming year. It is the fifth such letter Gates has penned since leaving Microsoft in 2008 to focus on philanthropic pursuits.

Gates' missive, published online in an interactive format that includes infographics and embedded videos, begins by asserting that accurate measurements are prerequisites to progress because they allow innovators to assess incremental changes in their designs, and to isolate the changes that are producing desired results. From programmers debugging a new application to Nate Silver seizing on the right variables to predict elections, this idea is borne out daily in high-tech settings, but Gates dedicated much of his letter to the ways measurements are impacting the developing world.

One section of the letter describes the way Ethiopians have tracked births, deaths, disease outbreaks and immunizations, for example. By using the data, workers in the impoverished country identified the Indian state of Kerala as a model for improvement and built 15,000 health posts to deliver primary care to its 85 million citizens. Gates noted that child mortality rates have traditionally been so high in Ethiopia that many parents refrain from naming children until it is clear the infants will survive. But with the health posts contributing to a 60% decrease in infant deaths since 1990, Gates expressed hope that many parents would feel "the confidence to name children the day they are born."

"This one of the benefits of measurement -- the ability it gives government leaders to make comparisons across countries, find who's doing well and then learn from the best," Gates wrote.

[ If Microsoft reported record revenue in 2012, why's everyone so gloomy about its future? See Microsoft's Mixed Earnings: Record Revenue, Drop In Profit. ]

The former Microsoft boss also emphasized the importance clear goals play in directing how data is measured and used. Gates made continual reference to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which seek to meet new improvement thresholds, in areas ranging from gender equality to environmental sustainability, by 2015. "Although we won't achieve them all, we've made amazing progress, and the goals have become a report card for how the world is performing against problems affecting the poor," Gates wrote, tying the United Nations effort to Ethiopia's ability to set actionable health targets.

Gates also emphasized the benefits measurement holds for education. He detailed how student surveys and frequent in-class observations have improved both test scores and instructor retention in Vail, Colorado's Eagle Country School District. "The countries that have better education systems than the United States provide more teacher feedback than we do today," he wrote, "but I think it is possible to do even better than any country has done so far."

Though he characterized himself as an optimist, Gates acknowledged that worldwide progress must overcome substantial challenges. He identified the necessity of defining new and useful goals as one such challenge, but emphasized aid funding most extensively. Traditionally, such funds have been defined in terms of dollars raised, he wrote, suggesting such measurements are suboptimal. If aid resources are described in terms of effects, however, such as the number of HIV deaths prevented, Gates wrote that important issues have "a better chance of becoming a priority for people."

Can data analysis keep students on track and improve college retention rates? Also in the premiere all-digital Analytics' Big Test issue of InformationWeek Education: Higher education is just as prone to tech-based disruption as other industries. (Free with registration.)

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