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Developing countries tap SAS data analytics software to improve governance

Developing countries like Uganda and Malawi are using donated data analytics software from SAS to improve governance and increase transparency to aid agencies.

Albania and Uganda may seem worlds away from one another, but they have at least two important things in common: Both are among the world's poorest countries, and both are using SAS data analytics software to help improve their situations.

In Uganda, for example, the government is using software provided by SAS Institute to analyze the results of a nationwide household survey. The goal is to determine how people are living, including what foods they eat and what expenses they have, so the government can improve services needed most.

While a lack of money makes it difficult for poor countries to govern themselves effectively, so does a lack of credible data. Without reliable statistics on population and poverty levels, deciding where to invest what limited funds poor countries do have can be an exercise in guesswork. And analyzing the results of such investments is nearly impossible.

That results in a two-tiered dilemma for developing countries, according to Marie Lowman, head of the SAS international development team. Without data to help determine if a project was effective or not, governments often have nothing on which to base future funding decisions. International aid agencies, meanwhile, are reluctant to lend money to countries that can't accurately track and report on their investments.

Having reliable data is "probably the most important element of any donor organization's decision to send funding into the developing world," Lowman said.

Data analytics software, SAS hopes, can help. SAS provides its statistical and data analytics software to five developing countries -- Malawi, Eritrea and Moldova being the other three -- for no charge through its international development group. SAS CEO Jim Goodnight created the group in January 2007 to identify ways the company could help poor countries lift themselves out of poverty, Lowman said.

The company has partnered with Statistics Norway, a governmental organization that specializes in analyzing social, economic and environmental data and provides on-the-ground training and support to government workers. Together, SAS and Statistics Norway have issued 150 licenses -- and placed 94 of them -- to the five countries.

"The technology is now there to allow their policy makers to make better decisions about which programs they're going to fund based on the success or failure of past projects," Lowman said.

Both SAS and Statistics Norway, which itself has been using SAS software since the early 1980s, have also put in place measures to make sure their investments are being used for the benefit of the countries' citizens.

"After data is entered, we process the data with quality tracking and tabulation measures," said Dag Roll-Hansen, a sociologist and senior adviser at Statistics Norway, who acknowledged that corruption among some government officials in developing countries is a serious and ongoing problem.

Of course, SAS is not donating its software for strictly humanitarian reasons. In addition to helping poor countries fight poverty, SAS hopes to eventually create new markets for its products. One of its criteria for deciding which countries to donate to is that there be no SAS software currently deployed there, Lowman said.

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 Nor is SAS the only business intelligence company to donate its software. SAP Business Objects, for one, donates a small percentage of its software to nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and Canada. In addition to helping the needy, such donations also generate good press for the vendors.

Still, the humanitarian benefits are real. In Malawi, government workers are using the SAS software to produce data analysis around per capita income, maternal health and children's access to schools. The results are published in an annual report on poverty in the country. The report is used by aid agencies, like The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to determine how much aid goes to the country and for what projects, according to Lowman.

"It's really great to be part of a program where you know you're changing the lives of people on the ground in these countries," Lowman said.

Added Roll-Hansen: "I think it's important for for-profit companies like SAS to take corporate responsibility seriously to help the less fortunate."

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