What can one do with access to all the world’s information? How would that knowledge help farmers in rural Kenya? What if they could easily communicate with anyone else in the world?

Before I attempt to answer these questions, really think about them. This is a period in human history without precedent. Seriously, take a moment and reflect on how the world has fundamentally changed in the last decade or two. There are certain patterns of development that repeat in developing countries, but never have the poorest and least developed had anything close to ready access to information.

Giants of history heroes as diverse as Ben Franklin and Andrew Carnegie attribute much of their success to a unique access to information. In their case, they could visit libraries with a few hundred books in it. Now everyone who can save up $50 can access a billion volume library. For about $50 one can purchase a cell phone with a camera and access to the internet. This is still expensive, but not impossibly so.

In 1700 BC the fastest communication was by horseback. In 1700AD the fastest communication was by horseback. From 1700AD to 2010AD, communication got about 10 million times faster. For a penny, I can send a message from anywhere in Kuria at the speed of light to anyone in the world.

But what does this all mean for Nuru? Not too much yet. It means that we can coordinate a bit better with our Nuru staff and that you can inform people if you’re running late. The true power has yet to be realized. But it’s so hard to think in a way that’s never been thought before.

And that’s my job starting February 11. I am handing over Healthcare Program Manager to Janine Dzuba for two months while I step into the role of Research Program Manager. During that time I will attempt to set up a system for communicating and collecting data. The primary thrust of this will be to distribute data collection tools to our leaders via cell phones. We’ll have 50 people,  measuring fevers, rainfall, school attendance, savings rates, and agriculture yields. This will give us the ability to collect and organize pictures of farms at various stages, confirm that their columns are straight, perform remote diagnosis of medical conditions (“telemedicine”), and possibly even identity confirmation using Picasa.

I’ve written earlier on the Disease Intelligence Network (DIN), the concept that we could potentially respond rapidly to fluid data. Starting next month, I’m going to start work on the Poverty Intelligence Network (PIN). I want to get a good look at what’s going in Kuria, fast, slow and everything in between.

Nuru has a unique position when it comes to data. Most aid agencies aren’t so interested in data. Those that are care more about numbers and less about the accuracy of those numbers. Or at least they don’t seem to care as most of the data that is getting fed to them is at least partly bogus (a fact which they could find out if they really wanted to).

Researchers do care about good data. But they’re hindered because grants must be spent only on research and not on ending poverty. A Malaria epidemiologist can never really help a community directly (at least not as part of his day job). He’s helping humanity in general, but not that particular community. With a researcher strictly doing his job as a researcher and nothing more, the community is unlikely to offer any more than lukewarm support. The other challenge with research is that it’s extremely siloed. You have to specialize; you have to ask a single focused question.

Nuru is unique. The data, while critical, is not our end. The people are. The data serves the people, not vice versa. As such, we have incredible buy-in and support for our work. People will answer awkward survey questions they wouldn’t if we were just strangers.

We are also not constrained by the hyper-focus of science. We can collect data on all different program areas. Then we might see relationships we didn’t expect. Maybe malaria rate has something to do with maize yield. Or water source with savings rates. There are probably a thousand relationships which we may be able to see because we don’t have to start with one specific question.

All that to say I’m excited. There are a billion things which could be measured, but what matters? What’s helpful? What’s accurate? I’m still looking for ideas if you have any (the crazier the better).
I hope that I can begin to take advantage of the unimaginable potential of infinite information and limitless communication.