Big data as modern-day philanthropy


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When we talk about big data, conversation tends to linger on storage, privacy and security. But to miss its philanthropic potential would be a huge mistake – opening government and private sector data troves can empower individuals and organizations to more readily create public goods.

Using big data to better society requires participation from three equally important groups. On one hand, industry must make a concerted effort to liberate its data, sharing as much information with government and the public as possible.

At the same time, government must not only liberate federal data, but also use the vast amounts of information garnered to make better public policy. It is then up to individuals and organizations to use the information available to study trends, patterns and anomalies in various sectors and design their own innovative solutions to global problems.

To fully realize the benefits of big data, we ought to treat it as a public good, said Robert Kirkpatrick, director of the United Nation’s Global Pulse Initiative. According to Kirkpatrick’s blog post on, this simultaneously requires multiple streams of liberated data. For example, during an earthquake, first responders would benefit from social network, mobile, retail and weather data, requiring multiple private sector groups to share potentially sensitive information.

It is clear that big data can have a social impact. Global Pulse found in developing countries, mobile network operators can estimate their subscribers’ household income based on how much and how often they purchase airtime. Blogs and online feeds provide valuable on-the-ground information on hard to reach areas of the world. Social networks like Twitter can help locals respond to natural disasters, like in Oklahoma.

This information was exceptionally valuable in the U.S. response to the cholera outbreak in Haiti, and can play an integral role in future U.S. disaster and public health response.

It is a sensitive topic, though. Private sector views on opening data are divided – some believe privacy is dead, while others fear reuse of data would actually threaten privacy and civil liberties.

Viewing data as a public good could reconcile these divergent camps. Kirkpatrick and others at Global Pulse believe for government to successfully employ big data, organizations must embrace it as a valuable resource to be disseminated to the public. This idea is called data philanthropy and in the private sector, it is a must.

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big data, data analytics, open data, Tech, United Nations
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