Big Data meets the biggest gathering of humanity in the world. That’s the most apt description for Harvard University’s study of the 2013 Kumbh Mela anyhow. The university’s South Asia Institute has sent a team of Big Data experts to study what is commonly believed to be the world’s largest public gathering, in a bid to gain insights from the data generated by the millions-strong transient population.
The Kumbh Mela is one of the most auspicious occasions in the Hindu religion – a mass gathering of as many as 70 million pilgrims at the holy city of Allahabad that takes place only once every 12 years. Devotees pour into the city in their millions from across the country in order to take a dip at the confluence of India’s three holiest rivers – the Ganges, the Saraswati and the Yamuna. In order to cope with the mass explosion of humanity descending onto the city, authorities have installed some 35,000 toilets and built some 155kms of roads in what has become the world’s largest temporary city.
Charting Disease at the Kumbh Mela
With such an enormous number of people packed into such a tightly confined space, one of the biggest headaches authorities have to deal with is the threat of disease. As such, public health is also the main focus of the Harvard team’s study, with one of its stated aims being to assemble “the largest public health data set ever among a transient population.”
The team has released a data chart that shows the distribution of various diseases among the population attending the Kumbh Mela. The idea is that they can use it to develop metrics that will enable health workers to detect potential disease epidemics within fluctuating populations during future gatherings.
Throughout the course of the festival, researchers are attempting to collect and analyze data from patients attending four field hospitals set up for the Kumbh Mela, and have so far gathered up more than 16,000 patient records. Researchers are yet to gain a full picture, but so far what they have deduced is that the instances of dysentery and diarrhea are noticeably more pronounced on one river bank than others, and so the reasons for this will be one area that warrants further investigation.
Religion, Environment, Urbanism and Business
Health isn’t the only angle of this Big Data study. Harvard has also sent a team of religious experts to study the different religious groups attending the Kumbh Mela and the significance of various rituals. Another team has been sent to assess the environmental impact of such a vast number of people turning up in one place at the same time, while a fourth team is focusing on the rather unusual urban aspect of the festival – their task is to map the Kumbh Mela ‘city’, including both its structure and also the main events that make up the festival.
Finally, there’s the ‘business’ team, whose goal is to try and understand how such a massive infrastructure can be built in such a short period of time, as well as the governance and public policies required to implement this. One crucial source of data for this team will be from mobile phone usage, which should help researchers to understand the economics of the gathering. With the rapid growth of mobile phone usage in developing nations, this year’s Kumbh Mela will be the most connected and accessible event in history, and the dataset generated by these devices will be monumental.
Impact of the Study
With luck, the study will be able to generate insights that authorities can use to better plan for future Kumbh Melas, which is clearly something that can be improved in light of today’s stampede which saw 36 people killed.
However, it’s hoped that the study will also be beneficial on a much wider scale, such as with future disaster response efforts. The researchers hope to use their findings to help relief organizations design better systems for responding to disasters and calamities. This might include being able to predict and plan better responses to disease epidemics, and improving the design of refugee camps, taking into account the need to distribute essentials like food and medical supplies.