A Galaxy of Data: Data Philanthropy and Social Innovation

The oft-used phrases “mountain of data” and “ocean of data” no longer seem like useful ways to describe huge amounts of information. “Interconnected, ever-growing, complex galaxy of data” is perhaps a more accurate analogy to describe the kind of information that is available to us and about us. And it’s this galaxy of data that will fuel innovation to solve the big issues facing our world.

What IS data?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “data” as factual information, as measurements or statistics, used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation.

From the small bits of data that we interact with regularly (emails, an electricity bill or our organization’s revenue projects) to the big data structures that we don’t often think about (where we surf online and the “cookies” we leave behind, cell phone usage, and location information through GPS or location-sharing apps), “data” is everywhere. Our habits and preferences are revealed in the way we surf online, how we use our cell phones and smart phones, in our healthcare choices, in where we use our credit card, and so on. Technology advancements have wildly increased the depth and breadth of this data, especially in the last few years. So, why does this galaxy of data matter? 

Enter “data philanthropy”

Data philanthropy is when “corporations take the initiative to anonymize (strip out all personal information) their data sets and provide this data to social innovators to mine the data for insights, patterns and trends in real-time or near real-time.“ (Though it’s a new term and will likely evolve.)

An article on Forbes recently declared that data philanthropy is good for business. How is it good for business? They provide some examples:

“Consider: MIT researchers have found evidence that changes in mobile phone calling patterns can be used to detect flu outbreaks; A Telefónica Research team has demonstrated that calling patterns can be used to identify the socioeconomic level of a population, which in turn may be used to infer its access to housing, education, healthcare, and basic services such as water and electricity; and researchers from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and Columbia University have used data from Digicel, Haiti’s largest cell phone provider, to determine the movement of displaced populations after the earthquake, aiding the distribution of resources.” 

Staggering, isn’t it, that day-to-day use of technology could potentially have this type of impact? 

Wired UK - NDNAD InfographicThe potential of data and social innovation

One in-depth study created four possible scenarios for how philanthropy and technology could evolve together, and a TechSoup Global blog, GuideStar International, provides a great outline of this fascinating study

Their take on the study? That everyone must not only adapt to technology, but we must also influence, mold & shape technology so that it can be used for social good.This will help us to create a scenario where the most vulnerable and marginalised receive assistance, fundamental rights are protected, and those that govern can be held to account. A scenario each of us should want to live in.”

Now that’s something we can get behind.

If you can’t get enough of the data philanthropy chatter, the UN Global Pulse has an excellent article about how data sharing can increase global resilience. It’s worth a read. 

Images via woodleywonderworks and blprnt_van under Creative Commons license.