Global Information Systems: Doing "Good Beyond Good"

May 23, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

I teach a graduate course entitled "Global Information Systems," and in it we focus on data which informs us about the world. Now, I don't mean information which is available to the entire planet. That would be the Internet, which provides pretty much the same information to everyone, everywhere. No, what I'm talking about is complete information about our planet and the human beings in it. Truth be told, there's less of it then you might think, although its availability is on the rise.

The official definition of a Global Information System is "any information system which attempts to deliver the totality of measurable data worldwide within a defined context," and there are a limitless number of questions which may be answered: How many cell phones are there? And where are they on the planet? Are they primarily used for voice? Or texting? On the health side, how many people have Tuberculosis? Malaria? HIV? Where do they live? And how about genetically modified crops: Where are they planted? Where does the food go after they are harvested? How does this compare to the totality of food grown worldwide? There's climate change, the services of Interpol, the number of commercial airplanes aloft at any one time, the global migration of humans, the infectious path of computer viruses, and the worldwide dumping of electronic waste: Everything and anything that can be counted or quantified under the sun.

These global information systems answer questions which we need to know as a human race, and in many cases, the sooner we learn these answers, the better it will be for everyone.

Throughout the course, we ask students to consider who generates the data and who funds its creation and/or dissemination. What might their motives be -- both published and actual? In the end, we begin to get a reckoning on what is available, and who the big data generators are in the world. As a final project, we ask the students either to pose a strategic business question or a formal research question around a topic of interest. The answer must require at least two existing global information systems and possibly some additional research.

One student asked to restructure the assignment, because he wanted to build a new Global Information System which didn't seem to exist anywhere, and I was hard pressed to deny him. A person close to this student was afflicted with Uveitis, an inflammation of the middle layer of the eye, which claims some 300,000 people here in the U.S. and over 2 million globally. It is responsible for some 10% of new blindness cases, and successful treatment is improved dramatically with immediate medical treatment as soon as the symptoms occur. As for the doctors who really know how to treat it? They are few and far between, and even with the availability of good medical care, it can mishandled, and there can be devastating consequences.

This young man wanted to build a global information system, which connected people with experts physically close to wherever they happen to be when their symptoms arose. He conveyed a sense of urgency and commitment, which is essential in any ambitious undertaking. But what truly startled me was the last entry on the last slide of his proposal presentation: He was going to publish on the Internet the skeletal form of all his efforts. In that way, anyone interested in building a global website to support other diseases and conditions in a similar manner, could easily do so, simply filling in headings and descriptors and the like.

So there it was. Not only was he trying to do something good; he was attempting to do "good beyond good." A good that he would never see, but that he could only imagine, simply based on empowering others. He did not know who these people were or what their mission they might be, and yet the result of his efforts had the potential to alleviate untold suffering beyond his personal focus. Even more impressive, this was a part of his design from the very beginning.

The bottom line is this: Doing good is admirable and to be encouraged; doing good beyond good -- now that really gets my attention.