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Next up for private sector: Data philanthropy and innovation

Robert Kirkpatrick, Director, UN Global Pulse

In my last blog post, I gave you an idea of the types of altered (read: improved) decisions on programs and policies that the public sector could make by using digital data about human well-being.

And I want to reiterate: This is the real deal, everyone. There are many public sector challenges related to health, employment and nutrition that could be improved with the use of good and timely information. But the right data is needed. Publically available social data is great for understanding moods and trends among populations. But think about the data that private organizations mine each day for insights to improve business.

Think about how rich that layer is – covering not only social media but also data that is generated as a byproduct of cloud services usage. For example, mobile phone data. People use mobile-banking accounts to transfer money and repay microloans via SMS. Imagine what the ebbs and flows in trends of those money transfers could tell you about the economic well-being of a community. Another example is the use of information hotlines or services. The number and type of inquiries can shed light on issues of concern. Has the volume of calls about a certain crop disease, or health symptom gone up suddenly from what was the norm? This data tells us so, so much.

Imagine a hypothetical scenario where this type of untapped real-time data could be extremely useful: a rural farming community where the seasonal rains are late, the price of food has gone up, and suddenly the number of money transfers coming in from the capital city (where people have better jobs) spikes, most likely from relatives helping out the folks at home. The next indicator of trouble appears when people in the drought-stricken community start defaulting on repaying their microloans that they worked very hard to qualify for. That’s a sacrifice, a decision they’re not making casually.

With this level of detail and pattern detection, we could spot the potential of a crisis as it emerges, because when people’s needs change (as they do when they’re in trouble), they change how they use services. Global Pulse is partnering with private companies to gain access to this kind of service data.

It’s not personal
It should go without saying that the Global Pulse isn’t interested in knowing exactly who lost their job and sold the family cow. But if analytics reveal that there is a 300 percent increase in people selling livestock in one district of the country, there may be cause for further investigation through our community and UN partners. Global Pulse will never touch data that contains personally identifiable information. Rather, we seek to partner with corporations who would be willing share aggregated high-level trends generated from their data. Or in some cases, they will let us know if they see certain crisis indicators in their data based on analysis conducted behind their own firewalls. So there’s absolutely no compromise of individual privacy or business risk.

The corporate social responsibility piece
Dubbed “data philanthropy,” the companies we partner with understand the (new) corporate social responsibility (CSR) component of sharing this data. It’s going to a good cause – the best cause in my opinion – due to the sheer global impact.

Companies also see the value of data philanthropy to help them attract data scientists – a highly sought-after group of budding and bright individuals who can be choosy (even in this economy) when accepting job offers. Many data scientists want to work for institutions that are doing something to help society and the world at large. Since partnering with Global Pulse strengthens and demonstrates a company’s commitment to helping the community, whether locally or globally, it may make the difference in attracting new talent.

What’s most fascinating is how companies see this partnership as more than simply CSR – they recognize that innovation can be sparked by sharing this data. For instance, a mobile carrier markets services to a developing country, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars building the infrastructure and the marketing engine to make that happen. Then Thailand floods, crops fail and the price of rice goes through the roof. And guess what? Poverty befalls the population. There go the customers.

A speedy reaction [to digital data indicators] could mean people don’t lose their jobs and don’t have to migrate elsewhere or reduce their spending. And, to come full circle, the mobile carrier keeps its customer base.

The carrier’s own data could have contained the signals, as subscribers take to the airwaves to discuss their misfortunes. If someone had collected that chatter, the public sector could have seen this struggle as it was happening and alter their services before the crisis hit. A speedy reaction could mean people don’t lose their jobs and don’t have to migrate elsewhere or reduce their spending. And, to come full circle, the mobile carrier keeps its customer base.

As Global Pulse maintains existing partnerships and cultivates new ones, this real-time data collection could be possible. Just imagine all the benefits, innovation and progress that could be made by sharing this data. These possibilities and this potential – that’s what gets me up in the morning and, frankly, boggles my mind. Lucky me, I get to take steps toward them every day.

For more information on Global Pulse, check out our blog.

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