Data Driven Social Good: Is it really happening?

Social good driven by Big Data may finally have arrived—providing a welcome illustration of data’s potential to drive change and an even more needed counterpoint to the stories emphasizing privacy concerns, consumer tracking and potential abuses of data.

“While some researchers and writers claim data analytics will create a data bourgeoisie, a new crop of social entrepreneurs and activists see opportunities to improve the state of the world by making sense of the current-day data deluge,” Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute wrote for the Guardian in a May 30 piece on data and social good. Many are looking to data to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems, including poverty, disease, environmental damage, hunger and war, Gangadharan said.

Here’s a quick look at three interesting organizations taking on the challenge:

  • Ushahidi formed after an election in Kenya as a way to map user-generated accounts of violence. They’ve since helped aggregate feeds and real-time information after crisis situations from Haiti to Macedonia. Here’s a podcast on how it works.
  • DataKind, formerly Data Without Borders, helps pair data scientists with nonprofit groups. They also do “data dives” with organizations like the World Bank and the Sunlight Foundation to help increase transparency and fight corruption. DataKind also can provide an organization, like the New York City Parks Department, with a data driven solution to a current problem — in this case they helped the city figure out how to take better care of its trees and avoid costly post-storm work.
  • Bayes Impact, a Y Combinator financed nonprofit, teams up an engineer, data scientist and an investor. Instead of using their formidable talents to “get people to click on more stuff,” they’ve joined forces to harness that power for doing good. “I was volunteering at homeless shelters for a little while,” Co-founder Paul Duan recently told TechCrunch. “I was shocked by the difference between this manual labor, this one-to-one exchange, and the idea that improving the accuracy of a [programming] model by 1% can affect millions of users and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.” The group also recently started working with the City of San Francisco, which just hired its first Chief Data Officer.

So what does it all mean? There’s more to Big Data than product personalization or more efficient marketing. As sustainability and marketing converge there may be a way to leverage your resources, including both people and technology, to help an organization or charity in need of superior resources to help solve a problem in your community. A little bit of analysis can go a long way.

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