How to Use Data for Good

You hear about the importance of data to the bottom-line in ecommerce, equity investment, market research, and many other for-profit ventures, but what about data for good? We found some great examples of companies and organizations using the world’s data for good.

Small, medium, or big, we live in the Age of Data. We create it at unprecedented rates, with everything from our online browsing, tweeting, sharing, physical movement, purchasing, streaming, clicking, liking, and more.

Collectively, we generate a staggering 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. That number is hard to wrap your head around, so try this: 2.5 quintillion pennies laid flat would cover the entire planet five times.

A quintillion is one followed by eighteen zeros: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000.

We create so much data that 90% of all data has been produced in just the last two years.  

You might already know that enterprise-level companies like Amazon, Walmart, Google, and Target not only collect an unfathomable amount of it, but they spend millions every year protecting and analyzing it.

We’re served relevant ads based on our data profile. We receive notifications and emails with coupons for things we’ve previously bought or are thinking of buying. We see “You might also like” suggestions and recommendations.

Some days, it feels like big data’s only job is to make more money for the big businesses with the budget and infrastructure to exploit it.

But it’s not. Big data is for everyone, and it’s used as much for good as it is for profit. Plenty of nonprofit organizations harness it to improve lives.

Like a comic book superhero, nonprofits and NGOs are using data to help, assist, improve, save, and protect.

These data for good initiatives and examples are just a small sample of groups using those daily 2.5 quintillion bytes to make the world a better place.

The Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth

You don’t immediately think of credit card giant Mastercard when you think of organizations working to improve the world

That said, you’ve probably never heard of The Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, which is focused on the application of data to a range of issues for social benefit.

[The Mastercard Center’s mission is] to deploy Mastercard data assets for positive social impact…[and to] unlock the power of data to create sustainable, lasting solutions to society’s greatest social challenges.” ~Shamina Singh, President of the Mastercard Center

With the virtual mountains of available data and resources at their disposal, Mastercard works with partners around the globe to eliminate information inequality on a wide variety of social projects.

Past and present initiatives include empowering smallholder farmers in East Africa, closing the information gap in urban America, working with small merchants in India to transition to a more efficient cashless system, civic innovation in Latin America, and more.

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The Center provides research, expertise, capital, and data to give new life to old initiatives, and to spark new ones. Their inclusive growth strategy connects individuals to the physical, virtual, and social networks that drive our modern economies.

Improving U.S. Healthcare

A Commonwealth Fund study ranked the healthcare system of the United States 11 out of 11 industrialized nations. Uncovering why is no easy task, and will require more than a single answer or fix.

To that end, data is helping to reveal what’s driving hospital readmissions in the States so that healthcare practitioners can proactively work to reduce it.   

While the full results require extensive reading and understanding of the industry, a quick glance shows a high level of correlation between higher readmission rates, lower median income levels, and general health risks like smoking and obesity.

Armed with that knowledge in addition to more detailed findings, healthcare workers can both educate on and target the factors that lead to higher readmission rates, thereby freeing up beds and reducing the increased risk of infection and complications that come with longer hospital stays, among other things.   

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Data For Good

Not a singular case study or example, the Data For Good movement is a Canada-wide initiative that brings together data scientists and allows them to use their skill sets and knowledge for the betterment of humankind.

A lofty ambition, yes, but since its founding in 2013, Data For Good has spearheaded numerous projects and programs. Submit a project request to them as a charity or NGO, and they can connect you with data scientist volunteers to both collect and analyze the data necessary to succeed like never before.

They’ve worked with Unicef Canada, The Terry Fox Foundation, Greenpeace, and Cystic Fibrosis Canada to name just a few.

Identifying Those Most in Need

GiveDirectly has a unique charity model, one that relies on technology to help extremely poor families in Kenya and Uganda. Ninety-one cents out of every dollar donated ends up in the hands of those that need it most…and all via mobile payment tech.

In order to increase the speed at which they identify the poorest villages and families that need the most assistance, GiveDirectly wondered whether data and technology could deliver faster results.

Enter DataKind, an international volunteer organization that brings data scientists and those that need their expertise together.

Working with GiveDirectly, a pilot project using Google Maps satellite imagery and a tailor-made algorithm was launched. It collected and crunched the data to identify the proliferation of thatched vs metal roofs in rural villages, a key indicator of poverty in the area. The faster they can locate villages in need, the faster they can deliver financial assistance.

Early tests had an accuracy rate just under 90%, although that figure did eventually go down.

Other projects have used similar methodology to identify nighttime illumination as another proxy for poverty, allowing charitable organizations to spend less time on identification, and more time on actually helping.

Combating Fake News

No matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, one thing is certain: there’s a fake news problem in 2018, with both sides pointing fingers at the other.

To better understand the issue, Public Data Lab – with a mission “to facilitate research, democratic engagement and public debate around the future of the data society” – released a Field Guide to Fake News.

Readers discover just how disinformation and digital platforms can influence public discourse and politics. The more you know about the process and interplay of parts, the better prepared you are to a) identify fake news in the real world, and b) resist its lure.

Sustainable Tourism

It’s a catch-22 most of the time: the sites and cities that reveal the rich history of civilization attract large droves of tourists interested in cultural diversity and preservation, which in turn threatens the very site or city they’re visiting.   

Take the Tuscany region of Italy, for example. Its capital city of Florence attracts roughly four million tourists each year, an obvious boon to the local economy.

But that kind of concentrated traffic can have a disastrous impact on our most beloved attractions over time.

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A new partnership between Toscana Promozione Turistica and Vodafone Italy aims to provide local authorities in Florence with the data necessary to identify trends in tourism in both time and space, allowing them to develop sustainable solutions.

They’ll be better equipped to keep the region’s doors open while protecting the community and locations that make it so special.

As data collection and analysis tools become more advanced and accessible, expect more cities and sites to follow suit.  

Data-Driven Justice Initiative

Launched under President Obama, the Data-Driven Justice Initiative (DDJ) is a collaboration between 67 city, county, and state governments to use available data and shared resources to divert low-level offenders out of the repeating cycle of incarceration and release.

At the local level, 64% of those in jail suffer from mental illness, 68% have a substance abuse disorder, and 44% suffer from chronic health issues.

The DDJ primarily strives to use shared data to identify those individuals and break the cycle, assist law enforcement personnel and first responders to de-escalate and divert away from incarceration, and use data-driven risk assessment to guide their pretrial release decisions (one participating city was able to reduce the number of individuals in jail awaiting trial by 40% without any risk or danger to the community).

Over 11 million people move through roughly 3100 local jails every year in the United States. The DDJ is working to reduce that number with data.

Data Training

Connecting social sector workers with data scientists is good, but providing those same workers with the skills themselves is even better.

Data Analysts for Social Good has taken that thinking to heart. For just $100/year, it provides training in the data sciences with everything from videos and lectures to webinars and conferences.

With so much data out there – and literally mountains being added each day – it can be used for so much more than just profit. We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do with it, but we’re already seeing tremendous results applying big data to real-world problems.

It’s hard to predict what might be disrupted or improved upon next, but it’s a safe bet to assume data will play an increasing role in virtually every industry, issue, and individual over the coming years.  

To assist in that direction, is proud to offer data for good Give Back discounts for charity and registered not-for-profits.

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