Global spending on big data and business analytics will grow to more than $187 billion in the next few years. At the same time, fears over the use of big data continue to grow—according to research from the University of Cambridge, 71 percent of consumers believe brands that access their personal data use it unethically.
But that’s not always true. Smart organizations, in both the private and public sectors, are instead utilizing big data for social good. From addressing complex social issues to fighting hunger, big data is making it easier to create lasting, positive change in society.
Various academics have voiced their concerns. Cathy O’Neil, former director of The Lede Program at Columbia University, says algorithms and mathematical models should be used to help reduce bias and inequality. However, the reverse is often true—big data models can sometimes help reinforce discrimination, and automated data–led decisions can leave unfortunate individuals further exposed to poverty.
Yet while the potential exists for big data to create inequality, there’s also the opportunity to improve society. Using big data for social good, therefore, should be the aim for all organizations that utilize big data—and examples of that positive use of information already exist.
Some experts believe public and private partnerships are the best way to help use big data for social good. Large, blue-chip organizations have the skills and technologies that are developing game-changing big data models. Lending this capability to nonprofit organizations could help change the world for the better.
There are examples of this link-up taking place around the globe. The nonprofit DataKind brings together leading data scientists with high-impact social organizations: take its recent partnership with Pollinate Energy to address the detection of urban poor communities in Bangalore via satellite images and other data points.
Academic institutions are forging partnerships, too. The University of Chicago runs a summer program called The Data Science for Social Good Fellowship, which helps train aspiring data scientists to work on projects with a positive impact. Working closely with governments and nonprofits, research fellows in the program take on real-world problems in key areas, including education, health, and public safety.
Mobile operator representation organization GSMA recently launched an initiative to use vendors’ big data capabilities to address humanitarian crises. The program, known as Big Data for Social Good, aims to meet significant crises—such as epidemics and natural disasters—head on, and is being launched alongside 19 of the world’s leading mobile operators.
Key executives in these organizations are helping to drive change. Nuria Oliver, director of data science research at Vodafone, has spent the past decade exploring how big data can be used to improve society. She says multidisciplinary approaches work best: bringing together data scientists and epidemiologists creates a confluence of talent to help solve social problems.
Another example from the mobile space comes in the form of LUCA, the big data unit within Telefonica. The organization—which is running a Big Data for Social Good initiative—is using an Apache Hadoop–based data platform to collect and store information in a data repository to undertake data transformation and analysis.
What all parties recognize is that big data is about more than simply improving customer experiences and business profits. There is growing recognition of the game-changing power of big data from key organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and the World Bank. In short, the right insight at the right time can improve society.
Take the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which is the private, nonprofit organization that runs the U.S. organ transplant system. UNOS manages the requirements of a network of hundreds of hospitals, transplant centers, organ procurement professionals, and thousands of volunteers. The decisions UNOS makes change peoples’ lives.
UNOS uses a connected data platform solution and 100 percent open-source tools to create a self-service reporting system for centers and organ procurement organizations. The organization’s data warehouse gives doctors a past and present view across patients and transplanted organs. The result is informed decisions that have the patients’ best interests in mind.
The amount of data being collected—and the money spent on technologies to analyze this information—continues to rise. While experts are concerned by potential risks to individuals, some organizations are already using their investment to help sponsor an improvement in societal conditions. At a time of huge change, we all have a responsibility to find ways to use big data for social good.
To fully understand the connection between big data and social change, learn more about the UNOS project.