Data Philanthropy: The Social Impact of Donating Data

July 01, 2015 by June Wu

Data is big these days. And in more than just one sense of the word.

Massive amounts of data are being collected through the expansion of technology, like mobile phones, social media, and the Internet of Things (IoT)—all as the field of data science surges in popularity. Being a data scientist was even crowned “the sexiest job of the 21st century”, adding it to the list of recently popularized professions that were once considered nerd territory and grounds for having your lunch stolen in grade school.

And while big data is now widely used within the private sector (highly targeted advertisements come to mind), the application of data in academic projects and social initiatives is also on the rise. The insights gained from all this collected data can be invaluable towards almost any project—a fact that has not gone unnoticed among nonprofit organizations and researchers alike. Data is helping change the world, from fighting fires in California to predicting earthquakes to bird conservation. Undoubtedly, knowing that your seasonal flu data is being used for the sake of better healthcare helps you sleep better at night in a way that taking Tylenol does not.

Yet, a lesser known way data is being used for social good revolves around the concept of data philanthropy. Data philanthropy is the (usually strategic) donation of privately-held commercial data towards beneficial causes.

Private companies with troves of proprietary data, such as Uber or Twitter, are giving parts of their data to entities such as civic governments and academic researchers. Data philanthropy thus takes something that is zealously guarded and makes it available for social benefit—an act that can’t be underestimated since the private sector is often miles ahead of nonprofits in its data-collecting and analytic capabilities.

So what can all that valuable data from philanthropic companies be used for?

  • Better city planning and development. Uber has agreed to share its rider trip data in Boston with city officials. This information can be used towards easing congestion and making public transit more efficient, a welcome improvement for anyone who has had the misfortune of navigating Boston’s notoriously jumbled roads.

  • Addressing natural disasters. DMCii, a private satellite imaging company, provides critical satellite mapping data and services during crisis events, such as devastating locust plagues in Algeria and various floods, fires, and blizzards. The images are invaluable to emergency responders and governments.

  • Disease and epidemic tracking. With Safaricom’s cell phone data of over 15 million people in Kenya, researchers from various institutions—including the Harvard School of Public Health, Kenya Medical Research Institute, and Carnegie Mellon—were able to track the movements of malaria through the population. Cell phones are one of the most widely used technologies in Africa, where most of the 200+ million annual cases of malaria occur, making Safaricom’s data donation crucial.

  • Understanding online social dynamics. The Digital Ecologies Research Partnership, or DERP, is a partnership that brings together several social media platforms to provide data to academic researchers studying human interactions online. Reddit, imgur, and StackExchange are among the cohort. It seems DERP is no longer just derpy. Twitter’s Data Grants will also allow certain academic institutions to access parts of their data for research purposes.

  • Helping people find jobs. As a part of the Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship at the University of Chicago, a 2015 project is using job market data—donated from the likes of CareerBuilder—and working with the US Department of Labor to improve job matching in the labor market.

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The application of donated data is huge and touches upon a wide variety of topics from all different fields. The massive amounts of data that private companies currently hold have the power to greatly benefit society and the world.

And as technology and data collection become ever more present in our lives, data philanthropy will play an increasingly significant role. As Enlightenment thinker Francis Bacon once said while hailing an Uber: “scientia potentia est”.


Image by: Jeff Djevdet (modified per CC license)