A Call to Action on Data Philanthropy

October 4, 2016

by Shamina Singh

The private sector has a critical role to play in bridging the data divide. 

If income inequality is the issue of our generation, information inequality is a problem for the ages.

We are in the midst of a growing data divide. The sheer abundance of data available today offers an unprecedented opportunity to transform the world for good — yet a chasm exists between those working to solve society’s toughest problems and those with the know-how and assets to unlock big data’s potential.

In 2014, the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development described in clear terms the inequality that surrounds big data.

“New technologies are leading to an exponential increase in the volume and types of data available, creating unprecedented possibilities for informing and transforming society…. But too many people, organizations and governments are excluded [from the new world of data] because of lack of resources, knowledge, capacity or opportunity. There are huge and growing inequalities in access to data and information and in the ability to use it.”

Governments, community organizations, charities and other entities committed to advancing social good but that can’t harness big data for whatever reason — limited capital, lack of expertise, antiquated technology — are losing a war they may not even know they are fighting.

This situation is unfair, unjust and unacceptable. Organizations on a mission to alleviate human suffering — regardless of size and influence — should have the necessary tools and resources to access and use data to solve problems.

At the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, we are committed to closing the gap through data philanthropy.

A step beyond traditional charitable giving and corporate social responsibility, data philanthropy is where companies — which have invested heavily in data and analytics in recent years — leverage their data capabilities to advance social good.

Following are several ways we engage in data philanthropy:

  • Sharing data. An organization doing socially-minded work, like a university or think tank, may have the expertise to analyze data but lack powerful data sets to help them uncover unique insights. In these cases, we look to see if we can grant access to our proprietary data — in a way that fully protects consumer privacy — to assist with their research. Through our first-ever grant of data, Harvard researchers are now exploring new frontiers of inclusive growth — from the impact of tourism on emerging economies to the role of knowledge exchange between countries.
  • Data knowledge. If we identify a need for better data on a particular issue, we leverage our in-house expertise to conduct an analysis and release the findings for broader use. For example, in partnership with the White House’s Data Driven Justice Initiative — an effort to use data to help advance criminal justice reform — the Center was able to perform an analysis to demonstrate the impact crime has on merchant locations and local job opportunities in Baltimore.
  • Leveraging expertise. It’s often the case — especially with government agencies and large NGOs — that an organization has an overwhelming amount of data but lacks the time, technology and personnel to organize, analyze and use the data effectively. In these situations, the Center works with its partners to provide additional expertise and capacity. Through a unique partnership with DataKind, for example, we’ve helped provide data scientists to work on social impact projects in Burundi, India, Rwanda and Uganda, as well as in U.S. cities like Baltimore.

The practice of data philanthropy is nascent and needs to be nurtured. Data collaboratives and data sharing websites are proliferating but not at a pace required to meet the urgent demand. I urge colleagues at other companies to review their data assets to see how they may be leveraged for the benefit of society. If governments, non-profits, academia and the private sector can find a way to work together to fully unlock the power of data, we’ll be better positioned to create sustainable, lasting solutions to society’s greatest challenges.

Originally published on LinkedIn.

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