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Taking Notes on Humanity:
Harnessing Big Data to Drive Social Good

Given the rate at which big data is evolving — it is being generated from multiple sources at such speed and volume that the term itself is becoming overexposed — it is little wonder that corporations are struggling to figure out how best to mine it for the type of information that can help enable a better world.

Given the rate at which big data is evolving — it is being generated from multiple sources at such speed and volume that the term itself is becoming overexposed — it is little wonder that corporations are struggling to figure out how best to mine it for the type of information that can help enable a better world.

The transformative potential of big data, particularly with regard to customer engagement, social interaction and storytelling means that companies should be asking themselves these questions (if they are not already): Should big data be recognized as a core element of sustainability programs? Where are the greatest social and environmental opportunities for big data? To what degree should socially useful big data be seen as pre-commercial and open?

Vodafone, Hewlett-Packard and GlaxoSmithKline were among those attempting to nail some answers at a ‘Data for Humanity’ event held in London, UK, last month by sustainability think tank The Crowd. In his keynote, Kenneth Cukier, data editor for The Economist, said the emergence of big data was throwing up all sorts of opportunities for companies to do good, such as “data philanthropy.”

Pointing to Orange’s D4D Challenge as an example, Cukier said by anonymizing and responsibly sharing big data such as that obtained from cell phones, telecomm companies could assist third parties such as researchers and NGOs in mapping and cross-referencing key trends for the purposes of societal development. “Seeing everything through the lens of data … it gives us a new form of visibility that we couldn’t have before,” he told delegates.

Vodafone certainly has achieved that visibility with M-Pesa, its mobile phone-based money transfer and microfinancing service. M-Pesa is changing lives in some of the world’s poorest countries by enabling those who have access to a mobile phone, but don’t have access (or only limited access) to a bank account, to collect and store money so they can trade, grow their business and build up a viable credit history.

Sally Fuller, head of product management at Vodafone Global Enterprise, said that to date, M-Pesa has nearly 17 million users across 10 countries and is growing at about 83 percent a year.

“30 percent of the GDP of Kenya is now traded through this. It’s a great story of need, where you’re marrying up some innovation, application development, clever mobile and data analysis with a need. The side [benefit] that we hadn’t anticipated was that the data generated would create that credit history and it would spiral into something greater.”

Meanwhile, HP is harnessing its technology to promote rainforest conservation by employing one of its big data platforms to assist in the high-speed monitoring, gathering and analysis of biodiversity and climate data at strategic locations across 17 tropical forests. The Earth Insights program, in partnership with Conservation International, is creating an “early warning system for threatened species,” according to HP’s global manager for Living Progress corporate affairs, Ann Ewasechko.

“It brings to life in a very user-friendly, near real-time way, analytics that can literally be brought to the hands of decision-makers who impact the forests around the world,” she said, adding that Earth Insights focuses on 275 species along with associated vegetation — all in all, this adds up to roughly 3 terabytes of information, encompassing more than 2 million photos and 4 million climate measurements.

“Conservation International were already capturing the data, but they were struggling with analyzing the data and making use of it. This [initiative] helps to increase the speed of the analysis and the accuracy,” Ewasechko said. “It’s early days … but already we have results that [suggest] 14 percent of the 275 species are likely to decline, using probabilities and simulations.”

Another example of data sharing was cited by GlaxoSmithKline’s medical policy director, Rob Frost, who oversees the ethical conduct of the company’s research. Building on its commitment to trial transparency, GlaxoSmithKline has developed an online portal whereby researchers can request access to the underlying data of these trails to help further their own experiments.

According to Frost, it’s quite groundbreaking.

“The reasons this hasn’t been done before and we were the first pharmaceutical company to do this [is] there were some concerns around commercial sensitivity. We don’t buy it — we’ve taken the view that if there are more eyes on the data, that can only be a good thing.”

Frost acknowledged that there were legitimate issues around patient privacy and data protection, and also ensuring that the data is put to appropriate use for good science. “It is a very real issue. It’s about sharing in an appropriate way — we are sharing anonymized data in a secure portal through which researchers can access the data, but not download the results. Explaining those safeguards to people within the company and outside is an important part of convincing people why this is the right way to do it.”

He added that all requests are reviewed by an independent panel, overseen by the Wellcome Trust.

“Hopefully the winners will be the patients,” Frost said. “Good science demands data scrutiny; we can’t possibly do this on our own and if any part of that network works on their own, it’s not going to lead to the best science. Working together and sharing data is in the best interests of the patients — if you can provide the appropriate safeguards.”

Reflecting on public and media concerns over privacy, and whether this might be hampering companies’ efforts to open and share their data for the greater good, Fuller reasoned that it was “probably a fair issue to hold us back.” She added: “It’s a really big discussion and it does need to happen. In the meantime, there are healthy experiments. If the data is old and it can be aggregated, there are things we can do to add value.”