How Data Donations are Transforming Public Policy and Academic Research

May 28, 2015

This blog was originally published by the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth.

In an era where “crowdfunding” has become a household term, a less widely known, but no less transformative, innovation is taking place at the level of institutional giving. Data philanthropy refers to donating a resource that in just the last few years has become an eagerly sought-after commodity: Big Data insights. It’s an innovation being pioneered by some surprising champions. Donating data goes against “the DNA of most corporations”—which worry about protecting their competitive advantage, says Mark R. Kramer, co-founder and managing director of FSG, a global social impact consulting firm. Yet, in a reversal of long-held attitudes, large, well-known organizations are leading the way in data donations, opening new insights into public policy and the development of the emerging field of “Data for Good.”

At its heart, these donations are about bringing Big Data’s promise of targeted solutions, refined in the business world, to addressing critical issues facing society like health, poverty and development. One early pioneer was Kenyan mobile company Safaricom, which donated a year’s worth of its de-identified data to researchers in 2012. Researchers gained access to calls and texts from nearly 15m Kenya mobile phone numbers coming from 11,920 cell towers between June 2008 and June 2009. The data were used to observe human migration patterns related to the spread of malaria. Researchers combined Safaricom’s data on call locations with local infectious disease data and were able to map and estimate the spread of malaria. The data revealed that malaria outbreaks started near Lake Victoria before spreading east toward Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. These kind of data help health workers limit and prevent transmission by providing an indicator about where allocation of resources will be most effective. “If you are going to try and eliminate malaria, you’ve really got to target interventions where most infections originate,” Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health involved in the study said in an interview with MIT Technology Review.

More recently, Uber partnered with the city of Boston in the hopes that its data could help with that city’s problems, including traffic congestion and city planning. Uber donated anonymized trip data by zip code, thus allowing city officials to see the date and time of the trip, its duration and distance traveled. The company plans to release this data on a quarterly basis and Boston’s Transportation Department, Department of Neighborhood Development and the Redevelopment Authority will all have access to the data, equipping them with a new tool for effective policymaking.

What highlights the development of the broader field of Data for Good is that corporate donations increasingly target not just today’s issues but the nurturing of data analytics talent through donations to academic programs. Imgur, Reddit, Fark, StackExchange, Twitch and deviantART have come together to create the Digital Ecologies Research Partnership (Derp), which will provide data to academics and researchers who meet institutional review board approval. These data will help researchers investigate online social dynamics. The MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth has collaborated with Harvard University’s Center for International Development (CID) by donating data on global business travel. With these data, researchers at Harvard can map the volume of face-to-face exchanges of business knowledge between countries, illuminating the role of a previously unexamined factor in economic development. “We need data scientists. We need people with backgrounds in computer sciences, data mining—we need to make data speak,” says Ricardo Hausmann, director of CID & a MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth senior fellow. “Tools that traditional economics have used assume a scarcity of data; we need tools to tackle a plethora of data. We are now changing our economics teaching to include more data science. We’re able to observe new phenomena.”

The question of talent is key to determining how widespread and enduring the impact of Data for Good will be: If the ability to turn data into valuable insights is scarce and institutionally concentrated, opportunities to innovate for social good will be fewer and more constricted. In the next post in this series, we’ll look at how the power of Data for Good is being put into the hands of nonprofits and the innovations these data are fueling.