A New Type of Philanthropy: Donating Data
March 25, 2013 Editor 0
We all recognize that without support from the private sector, many of the public programs in the arts, health and education — which we take for granted — would not exist. That same spirit should extend to Big Data. At the height of the global financial crisis in 2009, the Global Pulse initiative (where I serve as director) was set up by the UN Secretary-General as an R&D lab to find out whether Big Data and real-time analytics could help make policymaking more agile and effective. The evidence is growing that it can.
For example, in developing countries, mobile network operators can estimate household income of their subscribers from how much and how often they purchase airtime. Online chatter on blogs and forums can foreshadow imminent unemployment spikes. The volume of tweets mentioning food prices tends to rise and fall with inflation rates, and calling patterns through mobile phone networks shift in response to the prices of specific commodities. Such research has changed the debate from whether Big Data can have social impact to how. For the UN, this ability to glean real-time information could transform our work to protect development gains among the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Big Data also has serious implications for public health. Twitter has become a useful source of data for tracking everything from earthquake impacts to disease outbreaks to misuse of prescription drugs. Major institutions in the U.S. and Australia are already rolling out their own real-time Twitter monitoring tools. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, researchers from Columbia University and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute worked with mobile carrier Digicel to use phone towers to show where people from areas hard-hit by cholera were moving and taking the contagious bacteria with them. Society as a whole benefits from applications like these.
But the public sector cannot fully exploit Big Data without leadership from the private sector. What we need is action that goes beyond corporate social responsibility. We need Big Data to be treated as a public good.
The technology required for real-time analysis of Big Data is so new that even the private sector is struggling to learn how to use it effectively to bolster profits. And while they deserve the opportunity to focus their talent and research on realizing benefits for their shareholders, it would be a massive oversight if the public sector got left behind.
Even experts operating in the private sector assert that for the true potential of Big Data to be realized, different streams of information would need to be combined. Social media data combined with mobile phone data combined with retail data might be necessary to provide a fuller picture of what’s needed after a global crisis, such as a natural disaster or another economic downturn. This type of analysis might require that various private sector companies share potentially sensitive information. It is not reasonable to expect them to take this risk unless they are convinced of the public benefit.
At Global Pulse our strategy has been to form strategic partnerships with leading organizations that have the data, technology, and human expertise to learn how to do this analysis. We have been approaching companies with thought leadership on what we call data philanthropy, the idea that the private sector “holders” of Big Data can make this valuable resource available to the public.
Ultimately, we envision a world in which the private sector contributes to a real-time data commons. Yet we recognize that they will only do so on their own terms, and in the end, doing so must make good business sense. We believe they can share different types of real-time data in ways that don’t compromise their market competitiveness, and that fully protect privacy in the process. It will take courage, imagination, new regulatory frameworks, innovative policies, and fresh thinking about how public-private sector partnerships can be structured — but we must bring about this new reality.
Debates in the private sector have devolved into an existential struggle between two camps: one which believes that privacy is dead and profit is king, and one which fears that any reuse of data beyond the original purpose for which it was collected is a potential threat to privacy and civil liberties. Our goal is to insert a third pole into this discussion: Big Data is a raw public good, and we must work together to find ways to harness it for massive social impact, both safely and responsibly. For this to happen, data philanthropy has to become a private sector priority.
This post is part of an online debate about How Big Data Can Have a Social Impact, which we’re hosting in partnership with the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. You can view the entire debate here.
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