Data Philanthropy: Where Are We Now?

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The conversation around Data Philanthropy – a term which describes a new form of partnership in which private sector companies share data for public benefit – has advanced on four distinct but related levels since its emergence at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2011:

1. Conceptual development: discourse and debate

Discussions about the concept of Data Philanthropy, or private sector data sharing, have gained momentum and moved forward, reaching a broader audience. In an article about the issue, Fast Company’s Co.Exist summarized:

‘The next movement in charitable giving and corporate citizenship may be for corporations and governments to donate data, which could be used to help track diseases, avert economic crises, relieve traffic congestion, and aid development.The public sector isn’t, however, the only one to gain from Data Philanthropy: companies donating data can get advantage from it too.’

As we described in a guest blogpost with SAS Institute last year, data philanthropy can be seen as a form of business risk mitigation.

‘What’s most fascinating is how companies see data philanthropy as more than simply CSR – they recognize that innovation can be sparked by sharing data. Imagine 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. 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.’

Most recently, the Skoll World Forum, together with the Harvard Business Review, hosted an online debate “How Can Big Data Have Social Impact,” featuring contributions from some of the leading experts in Big Data and its application to development research. Jim Fruchterman, President and CEO of Benetech explains :

‘Massive amounts of data are collected on the pollution in our cities and the changes in our climate. The more we use technology in our education and health systems, the more data we collect about how people learn and what keeps us healthy or makes us sick. These information-centric areas are built for Big Data – data that if better understood could help provide a pathway to maximize our human potential, instead of maximizing profits.’

Global Pulse’s director Robert Kirkpatrick emphasizes the important role of the private sector:

‘The public sector cannot fully exploit Big Data without leadership from the private sector. What we need is action that goes beyond corporate social responsibility. We need Big Data to be treated as a public good.’  

Conversations and debates around Data Philanthropy are happening in different sectors, but much more can be gained through exchange between the different stakeholder communities working on solutions and testing new approaches.

2. Research: a growing body of evidence  

Researchers have been able to demonstrate the vast potential of data sets normally hidden behind corporate firewalls as a source for new insights into human behavior, creating notable case studies to support the arguments in favor of Data Philanthropy.

For example, academic researchers have shown how cell-phone location data was used to understand how human travel affects the spread of malaria in Kenya, while mining of anonymized Yahoo! email messages provided a detailed view of international migration rates. More recently, mathematician Stephen Wolfram worked with data donated by Facebook users to show how the data reveals signals about how a person and their life changes over time.

3. Testing the waters: private sector data sharing

A handful of pioneers have been testing the waters of private sector data sharing. French telecommunications company France Telecom-Orange, for example, has made anonymized records of five million mobile phone users in Cote d’Ivoire available to the research community as part of the Data for Development Challenge.

Popular URL shortening service Bitly has launched Bitly Social Data APIs giving developers access to data collected from the billions of clicks that Bitly receives each month. And, international organization such as UNDP and the World Bank have made efforts at opening up their own internal data, allowing for applied research experiments and correlation with external data sources like social media or mobile phone data at a series of recent Data Dives.  

4. Searching for frameworks

A quest for suitable legal frameworks, ethical guidelines and technology solutions for privacy-preserving data sharing is taking place within various communities all over the world. Crisis mappers and disaster response experts are debating the idea of a “Big Data Philanthropy group for humanitarian response” while data privacy experts are working on sophisticated mathematical techniques like differential privacy and “space time boxes” to make personal data accessible while preserving high levels of individual privacy. Here at Global Pulse, our Legal Advisor has been consulting with data privacy experts from around the world to get inputs on the data privacy guidelines we will follow in our Pulse Labs.

At the 2013 Mobile World Congress, the GSM Association hosted a thematic workshop on privacy for an audience of private sector leaders as well as government regulators entitled Balancing privacy: Providing social good and economic opportunities the mobile perspective, at which Global Pulse offered for consideration at least four modalities through which mobile companies could consider sharing data with the public sector.

four ways of sharing data diagram

And finally, Vital Wave Consulting, together with the World Economic Forum, recently published a paper titled “Paving the Path to a Big Data Commons,”  outlining the advantages and impacts a shared data commons would have for Consumers, Government and the Private Sector, and advocating its importance. The creation of a data commons would give key actors the systemic view of interdependencies and relationships they need, allowing them to understand the impact of their actions on other ecosystem actors.

Obstacles on the Road Ahead

Despite the growing acknowledgement of the benefits, we are far from having a viable and sustainable model for private sector data sharing. This is due to a number of challenges – most of which revolve around personal data privacy, and corporate market competitiveness. Companies have to protect the individual privacy of their customers as well as their own competitiveness. The possibility of re-identification in the age of big data is a real and growing concern. Solutions, guidelines and best practices are needed for how data can be stripped of any personally identifiable information, and only the aggregate level trends are shared. After last year’s Strata conference on big data, the O’Reilly Radar blog summarized key takeaways in a blogpost called “3 big ideas for big data in the public sector” including the emerging importance balancing public good with human rights protection:

In August, my colleague Alistair Croll provocatively wrote that big data is our generation’s civil rights issue. Robert Kirkpatrick, director of U.N. Global Pulse, broadened his concerns when he delivered remarks at Strata: “Big data is a human rights issue,” he said. “We must never analyze personally identifiable information, never analyze confidential data, and never seek to re-identify data.”

Another challenge is that the market competitiveness of corporations depends increasingly more on their ability to infer meaning from the data they collect about the consumption patterns of their customers. Concerned with losing their competitive edge, companies might hesitate to make their data sets available. However, it may be possible to aggregate data from various firms of the same industry (for example health insurance, or power utility companies) into a Big Data Commons in order to prevent attribution of a certain data set to a specific company.

The list of challenges is certainly much longer than those listed above, and all of them could pose obstacles on the road to private sector data sharing, hence it’s more then ever necessary keep the debate, research and framework development going in order to find appropriate solutions to the issues data-sharing presents.

Andreas Pawelke worked with Global Pulse on data philanthropy strategy and research in 2012, through the supported the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)/ German Development Cooperation (GIZ) Young Professional Program.

Related: Data Philanthropy – Public and Private Sector Data Sharing for Global Resilience 

Image credit: “Visualization Friendships”, by Paul Butler/Facebook Engineering

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