How Data is Used for Social Good?

Abhirami Sankar


April 21st, 2016

Marcus Lemonis, a known entrepreneur and small-business investor, often refers to the importance of business owners “knowing their numbers”. Data and statistics are everything when it comes to establishing successful businesses, especially those involved in social change.

Suppose you tell someone that you are going to provide free education to the rural masses in India, this may evoke the sympathy of others but that’s about it. Post this, asking for donations may not yield much funding, given the audacious nature of the goal. Alternatively, if you’re knowledgeable about how much funding it’ll take to improve the literacy rate in rural areas which has an illiterate population of about 315M, then things will swing in your favour.

Data is the new oil. Obscure ideas and unclear stories aren’t very compelling, but facts set in data paint a much clearer picture. Being able to leverage data can make all the difference in eradicating various global or local social problems.

A lot of non-profit organisations have made use of data analytics and Big Data to solve social problems. Let’s list some of them:

  1. In 2007, Ushahidi formed as a way to map user-generated accounts of violence in post-election Kenya, and help increase donations to the region. It is Swift River platform was designed to verify crisis reporting communicated by people in a short span of time through emails, text messages and social media. It has been facilitating analysis of such reports, from the Haiti earthquake to corruption in Macedonia.
  2. DataKind, formed with the intention of pairing data scientists with civil society groups in a pro-bono capacity. They have organised many “data dives” or workshops to assist groups such as the World Bank in finding and analysing multiple datasets for the purpose of supporting good governance, transparency and fighting corruption. A new generation of socially minded data scientists has also helped launch DC KIDS COUNT, a tool to better understand how to support children and families in the communities they represent. Since the tool’s source code is available on GitHub, any organization can take the code and create their own interactive data visualizations. In fact, one of the most exciting aspects of the project has been the way that the tool has already begun to spread. For example, a Kentucky Kids Count grantee worked with the Civic Data Alliance to create their own tool using this source code. The tool even went global in 2014 when a charity working with DataKind’s UK Chapter also replicated the tool to map child poverty in the north-east of England.
  3. DemystData, uses Big Data to link financial institutions to individuals typically excluded from financial systems. The Hong Kong-based company mines social media and other online sources to target the “unbanked”, who might otherwise steer clear of financial markets. It then uses this information to help financial institutions improve service delivery to underserved customers.
  4. The Social Innovation Program at the Qatar Computing Research Institute has also helped deep dive on data generated during major natural disasters, allowing organizations to better understand the needs of those affected. But not just that! With more than 10 major projects underway, the Social Innovation Program is setting a standard for the rest of the world when it comes to the utilization of data science for social entrepreneurship efforts.
  5. mHealth Alliance is a public health group that analyzes data transmitted from patients’ mobile phones in countries like Bangladesh and South Africa. It recently announced a public-private partnership to engage questions of privacy and security in the use of mobile technologies in healthcare.
  6. Open government initiatives also contribute to socially minded data analytics. Digital India, a recent initiative of the newly formed government in India, has necessitated hosting of information and documents and the proactive engagement and interaction of government and citizens through social media, online messaging, etc. Currently, 85 government ministries, departments, and agencies have contributed more than 12,000 datasets across segments such as population census, water and sanitation, health and family welfare, transportation and agriculture to data.gov.in. One of the unique features of the Open Data portal in India is that citizens or users can demand a specific dataset from the government and others looking for similar data can endorse these requests. It then becomes mandatory for a department to release that data if 100 such endorsements are raised for a particular dataset.

All these companies and other non-profits similar to them work both locally and globally to support a new generation of socially minded data scientists. Being able to harness this new analytics and Big Data techniques to aid social entrepreneurs is a crucial step for future progress.

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