Business, government, and civil society are looking at big data as the new “holy grail” to better sell products, deliver services, or engage people in solving problems. Yet, while they indeed facilitate new approaches to tackling social problems, new uses of data and communication tools raise tough questions around complex issues such as privacy, ethics, and digital exclusion.
How can we maximize the positive aspects of the data revolution for social change while managing its potential downsides?
This was the main theme of the panel, Digital Equity and Rights in the Age of Big Data at this year’s annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship—the international platform for advancing entrepreneurial approaches and solutions to pressing social problems. Benetech CEO, Jim Fruchterman, joined Skoll Global Threats Fund’s Larry Brilliant, the Economist’s Kenneth Cukier, UN Global Pulse’s Miguel Luengo-Oroz, and moderator Emily Kasriel of BBC Global News and Oxford’s Said Business School for a dynamic discussion yesterday. Below are highlights:
Fruchterman opened his comments with some of the lessons Benetech has learned from years of providing technology and training to human rights defenders in often-dangerous environments. When it comes to protecting data during collection, especially when the information is about subjects who are or could be at risk, there’s a lot at stake. “Almost every government is vacuuming up any data you send through the net,” he warned. Groups involved in collecting identifiable information that might endanger the lives of people who are or could become victims of human rights abuse “have the responsibility to protect that information,” he said. “We have a duty first to do no harm.”
But finding the right balance can be difficult. Luengo-Oroz noted that protecting the privacy of individuals is indeed necessary, but shouldn’t prevent us from using data in the social sector. UN Global Pulse, he said, advocates for the responsible use of big data.
Cukier pointed out that big data is evolving and that the main issue depends on our usage of data. We need more mature ways of using that data, he noted. Brilliant warned the audience of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater:” Edward Snowden’s revelations have generated too much fear concerning the use of data. He conceded that “big data” has indeed become a cliché. He noted that when we talk about data, we tend to conflate multiple different issues, from individual rights to corporate spying to corporate hoarding of information.
Fruchterman then turned to the ways in which for-profit companies use data for viable commercial reasons, such as optimizing their websites or maximizing the effectiveness of their ads. We can apply this existing apparatus to creating social good, he said, and address privacy issues by collecting information solely on what users opt-in to share.
A question was raised about the ownership of data—will it be centralized or decentralized? Fruchterman noted that one of the advantages of the age of the internet and big data is that it inverts the power structure and pushes innovation to the edges. Tech innovation is no longer limited to large-size organizations that have money and influence. This opens up opportunities for social entrepreneurs to build technology applications that are suitable and relevant to the lives of the people they want to empower. We must let our social sector customers decide what tools are working best and how their data is used. Brilliant expressed concern that one of the things at risk post-Snowden revelations is the balkanization of the internet, noting that the aspirational quality and the driver of economic change will be at risk.
Another question focused on how to balance rationalism and sensibility with data. Facts alone don’t usually move political beliefs, Fruchterman pointed out. Social entrepreneurs should figure out what better tools we can use to counter non-progressive forces.
Cukier concluded by supporting Fruchterman’s point—noting the limits of big data. Storytelling is still necessary in order to foster positive change in people’s worldview and behavior concerning social problems. The insights of management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker still hold true today: knowledge is learning through doing. The same is applicable to positive uses of big data: data science alone won’t solve the world’s problems. Social entrepreneurs must consider data within the real-world context of the people they help and get involved at the scale that’s right for their organizations.
You can watch the complete video of the panel, below.