The Knowledge Revolution: Big Data and Sustainability

An SAP data center in St. Leon-Rot, Germany.

By Daniel Schmid

Sustainability poses many questions. For a long time, answers were scarce. But thanks to new anal­ysis methods and an increasing willingness to share data, sol­utions that were completely inconceivable until recently are now becoming possible: For instance, big data allows us to optimize cancer treatment or to identify slave labor in the supply chain.

Fighting poverty, providing educational justice and healthcare, taking responsibility for resources, energy efficiency, occupational safety, cons­umer protection … Countries, organizations and companies that are committed to creating a more sustainable world have a long laundry list. Yet as different as these areas seem to be, they all have one thing in common: their immense complexity. Unimaginably large amounts of data are generated in each of these areas, day in and day out. People who try to understand how these factors are developing and where they are going end up merely chasing the past – if they rely on conventional methods.

It takes big data analytics – the multidimensional analysis of mass data in real time – to give the persons responsible the information they need to make sustainable decisions reliably.

Test case: Tumor research

The advances big data has already made can be illustrated through the following example from cancer research. More and more oncologists are becoming convinced that tumor patients require personalized treatments. To better esti­mate the different effects of the tumors, they examine the DNA of cancer cells. You can think of it as a puzzle with 3 billion base pairs. Until recently, this task took a good 30 days to complete. Together with Mitsui Knowledge Industry, a Japanese IT specialist, SAP has now developed a solution that de­livers genome analyses in 20 minutes.

The National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) in Heidelberg, Germany, is taking advantage of this technological leap. It began offering its patients DNA analysis of their cancer cells in 2015. In the next step, the NCT researchers compare their results with findings from other tumor treatments. The objective is to identify similar diagnoses and to develop a therapy that is the best fit for their patients (video). While still part of clinical trials right now, it will become a standard care service covered by health insurance in the future.

This example from tumor research impressively demonstrates the core benefit of big data: When complex data from a wide variety of sources is combined and analyzed in real time, completely new insights become possible. They are completely new because conventional methods were not even remotely capable of finding a comparable number of correlations in a cohesive calculation model, which can then be analyzed specifically in a reasonable amount of time.

Made in a free world

Similarly exciting developments take place whenever players who usually work in different domains come together. When companies and NGOs pull together, for example, big data can open up untold possibilities. Often enough, it can even find answers to issues that long seemed unsolvable – for example, finding effective measures against modern forms of slavery such as forced labor and child labor.

After all, despite its banning by the U.N. in 1948, slavery is still among the most serious violations of human rights worldwide. According to estimates, 20 million to 30 million people worldwide are in forced labor, with no rights at all, generating revenues for their captors of up to $150 billion per year. Stories of such exploitation regularly raise awareness among the global public – for example, through news reports on the mining of conflict minerals in the Congo or the situation of migrant labor in some emerging economies.

But in most cases, the slave trade and its associated exploitation go largely unnoticed. Global sup­ply chains seem too broad and deep to identify slave-like working conditions.

A broad alliance of activists, consumers and companies has had enough of this lack of transparency: The non-profit organization Made in a Free World (MIAFW) systematically identifies goods, ser­vices and raw materials whose production is demonstrably associated with slave labor. The organization’s list now covers 54,000 commercial goods. Anyone can use the online database to exam­ine their own buying patterns. Consumers can do so with just a few clicks. Of course, this task is more complex for the procurement departments at larger companies. That’s why MFIAW offers a whole range of IT tools to automate the data synchronization as much as possible.

The organization cooperates with partners such as the Ariba tra­ding network, an SAP company, whose customers include three-quarters of the 2,000 largest transnational corporations. Together, these companies spend $12 trillion annually on goods and services, making it an excellent le­ver for starving suppliers that violate fundamental human rights. In mid-2015, Ariba began offering its business customers the possibility of synchronizing their procurement data with information from Made in a Free World.

Sharing data

As these novel opportunities for generating knowledge become available, collaboration is intensifying at a number of levels. The pin­nacle to date was reached in September 2015, when a network was founded by 70 governments, companies, NGOs and international organizations – including the World Bank and the OECD.

The name of the network – Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) – describes its purpose: The participants intend to merge their datasets and use them to serve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the United Nations last September. The network’s goal is to provide free access to a maximum of reliable information to all interested parties. They hope to make this vision reality by 2030.

To illustrate how IT may support to attain the SDGs, SAP has created a new Web book. For every of the 17 goals, SAP’s sustainability experts provide a blog post with examples as well as info charts, using data from the world bank, among others. Short videos complete the offer.

Image credit: SAP SE

Daniel Schmid started his career in 1992 as a consultant at Kiefer & Veittinger, a CRM company that was acquired by SAP in 1997. In 1996, he became Business Unit Manager, followed by numerous management roles at SAP. From 2004, Schmid held various senior management positions within SAP Consulting across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  From 2009, Schmid headed up Sustainability Operations. In June 2014 he assumed the role as Chief Sustainability Officer and is globally responsible for sustainability at SAP. He is a member of the steering committee of econsense, a forum for sustainable development of German business. Schmid holds a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Kaiserslautern, Germany.

Daniel and his team share SAP’s experience in a free openSAP online course “Sustainability through Digital Transformation“, starting April 13, 2016.