How Organizations are Using Data for Social Good

By BrainStation May 28, 2019

Data keeps getting a bad rap.

From Facebook being in hot water over data breaches impacting millions of accounts to DNA analyzer 23andMe raising issues about privacy and consent while selling ancestry-based vacations, a lot of data-based companies are making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

But against that backdrop, there’s another far more comforting trend: Companies using data for social good.

“We’re in a digital age — an age of data,” says Alexander Watts, director of insights at BlueDot. “And I think companies have a duty to not just use their data for profit but to find all the different avenues their particular data sets can have a social contribution.”

Watts is among the panelists at BrainStation’s upcoming event, Data for Social Good in Toronto: Organizations with an Impact, on Thursday, May 30 at our Toronto campus. This is the third and final Data for Social Good panel BrainStation will hold this month, with all proceeds from the events being donated to non-profit organizations with a focus on education.

BlueDot’s mission? Using data analytics to help the world become more prepared for, and respond more quickly to infectious diseases.

Watts says that this lofty goal requires using diverse data sets from different institutions and streams, along with event-based surveillance, to get a sense of where disease outbreaks are happening.

“Maybe it’s an influenza outbreak in China, or Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he says. “The next step is to see if the disease will fade out, or if it will spread and cause more public health problems.”

Through data analysis, BlueDot is able to make those predictions and figure out the best approach to combat an outbreak — be it more mosquito spray, an educational campaign, or a vaccination program.

BlueDot is just one of several organizations striving to use data for ethical, societal benefit rather than for profit.

Data for Good Around the World

DataKind, for instance, is a New York-based charity that helps other charities work more productively and quantify their achievements for donors, The Economist reports. The organization recently collaborated on a project that uses public data sets to offer an interactive look at American neighborhoods’ smoke alarm usage rates and the level of risk in hopes of preventing deaths and injuries.

The powerful uses of data don’t stop there, in fact, organizations with a focus on data for good are gaining traction across the globe.

In Egypt, a coalition of women built HarassMap, a platform using anonymous, crowd-sourced data to alert users to geographic areas where there are instances of sexual harassment taking place.

The city of Melbourne, Australia is making the world a cleaner place with its high-tech garbage bins, which feature real-time data analysis to figure out if there’s garbage overflowing on a regular basis. This data is then used to determine ideal bin locations and collection timing.

These data-focused organizations are making it increasingly clear that data can have a positive impact on the world.

Using Data to Measure Impact

According to Erin Blanding, another panelist at BrainStation’s upcoming event, data is an integral part of her work as head of global program innovation and development for WE, a child advocacy charity.

“WE is using data for social good by being able to understand the social impact our programming and products has on the lives of people, domestically and internationally, in tangible ways,” she says.

In one instance, that meant using the data collected from domestic WE Schools programming — service-learning educational programming in more than 18,000 schools in the US, Canada, and the UK — to determine how the schools are assisting more than 3,000 charities and causes annually and contributed more than $265 million worth of impact.

Moving Forward With Data

Even as more organizations strive to use data for ethical, world-changing means, Watts says there are still challenges in actually accessing enough data in the first place — in part, thanks to companies using personal data for profit, sometimes to the chagrin of users.

“There are so many privacy concerns,” he says. “Even for us, it remains a hurdle.”

Blanding stresses that, overall, data will be collected more and more, with AI and emerging technologies playing a bigger role in the automation and digitization of our society.

“Therefore, those on the leading edge of that adoption will be able to have a say in how its implemented and if we — as leaders in social change — want it to be used as a force for social good, we need to embrace it, think about it critically, and continue to stay on the front line of experimentation and testing to ensure it can be a positive contribution for our people and planet,” she says.