Data for Good

Data Philanthropy Offers New Avenues for Solving Old Problems

Leveraging private-sector data-driven insights for the public’s benefit is rising.

August 02, 2018

In today’s big data era, data-sharing efforts are on the rise and are creating new opportunities to develop insights, knowledge and innovation that benefit everyone. Data philanthropy – the act of leveraging private-sector data-driven insights for the public good – enables data partners to collaborate with researchers, nonprofit organizations and government agencies to fill knowledge gaps, inform debate and ultimately improve public policy, decision making and the provision of services.

More than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated every day, making 90 percent of all data less than two years old, according to a 2016 figure from IBM Marketing Cloud. In the past, these vast stores of potentially useful data would have remained inaccessible to analysts who could use them to help solve pressing local and global problems. Now, according to the 2018 report “Data Philanthropy: Unlocking the Power of Private Data for Public Good’’ by the Urban Institute, these data insights are increasingly seen as assets that can be leveraged through data philanthropy.

Use cases

The Urban Institute report cites numerous examples of private, for-profit companies – in sectors including technology, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and media – that have already provided limited access to their data-driven insights to university researchers and government health agencies. These efforts have enabled data analysts and consumers to map the spread of malaria in Kenya or snow patterns in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, predict economic insecurity, find better ways to diagnose and combat dementia and pinpoint pockets of food poverty in the U.S.

These are just a few of the “use cases’’ mentioned in the report, which also described a partnership between Urban Institute and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. The Center provided Urban Institute access to a set of Mastercard’s aggregated and anonymized transaction data—narrowly limited in both time and geography—so that it could better understand key policy issues related to charitable giving and inclusive redevelopment in U.S. cities. Among the areas they explored were average contribution level and daily giving patterns from the donor’s perspective in the Center’s Donation Insights report.

The insights from the Mastercard transaction data “have the potential to help us understand the changes going on in neighborhoods where development is taking place and can inform activities to address those changes,’’ the report concluded. “These data are collected frequently, which can be helpful in gathering immediate insights in rapidly changing neighborhoods.’’ For example, the Center recently used data insights to assess the impact of economic development on Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood. They also combined insights with publicly available data to evaluate how local crime may affect retail.

Reasons for data sharing

Engaging in such data partnerships can help both donors and beneficiaries. Data donors can show good corporate citizenship by sharing their unique resources and creating new ways to provide greater insight into complex social issues. They can also promote innovation in their industries and have input into the public debates that impact them.

Beneficiaries can lower the cost of acquiring vital insights to which they might not otherwise have access, but that nonetheless drives key components of perplexing research questions. They may gain more detailed or current information than that found in existing data from censuses, leading to better answers or inspiring new solutions to longstanding problems.

Different pathways

The landscape of data philanthropy is new and evolving and different practices or “pathways’’ to unlocking data for the public benefit are emerging as starting points, the report says. At one end of the spectrum is a restrictive view, such as a data provider mining its own data and providing limited access to the resulting insights. At the other end, a data partner may allow direct public access to datasets, like open data initiatives, so that researchers can analyze and interpret the data.

In between are various hybrid approaches involving degrees of collaboration or cooperation and based on varying levels of trust. These include programs designed to encourage research or to develop new ways in which data insights can be leveraged, such as contests to design apps that can be rolled out to a broader audience.

Risks & safeguarding data

Entities that provide access to their data insights have many considerations when balancing their partnership goals with ensuring compliance with their privacy and data protection obligations. Risks include those relating to data security, confidentiality and the privacy of internal, personally identifiable information – which call for robust privacy and data protection safeguards, including aggregation and anonymization. For example, Urban Institute and Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth entered into a comprehensive agreement that subjected Mastercard’s data insights to robust privacy and data protection controls – such as the use of indexed values.

The benefits of data philanthropy

The Urban Institute report concludes that when hurdles such as these are overcome, the benefits of data philanthropy are potentially immense. Sharing data insights creates a way for private companies to raise the level of evidence-based knowledge, to contribute to greater insight into social issues and to share their resources. The impact can spur innovation and produce solutions to urgent problems like poverty, disease, starvation and inequality, making the world a better place to live and work.

Andrea Gerlin is an award-winning international journalist based in the U.K. and a writer for News Deeply. Her reporting has been featured in Bloomberg News, Time, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal.