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Data for good: Wonderful ways data is making the world better

Big data and corporate social responsibility go hand in hand. Here are some ways organizations are using data and analytics tech for people and causes that need it the most.

Corporate citizenship has long been a community-stabilizing power. For decades, businesses have steadied struggling neighborhoods and schools, stocked shelves in food banks, funded shelters, rectified social inequalities, protected the environment and animals, and sought cures for what ails mankind. Today, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is aiming to provide more social good on a much larger scale—and big data and related technologies are the technical means they are using to reach that goal.

“Digital-age technologies like blockchain, IoT, AI, and big data analytics are aiding corporate social responsibility practitioners to develop a sustainable and resilient world,” says Kevin S. Parikh, author of "Digital Singularity: A Case for Humanity" and CEO of Avasant, a global management consulting firm.

“Large-scale data collection combined with machine learning offers a new set of tools that opens up new avenues of research and greatly enhances the efficiency and efficacy of CSR work,” Parikh adds.

While these new CSR efforts can help with shared problems around the world, they can also be focused in local communities, so help at home is not forsaken. “As applying sustainability science based on computational data analysis methods (e.g., big data) increases, the idea of thinking globally and acting locally becomes even more relevant and important,” says Parikh.

Need inspiration? Take a look at some of the surprising but wonderful ways big data is making a difference in CSR efforts.

IoT helps provide safe drinking water

One example of big data and IoT working for good and at scale is a World Resources Institute project called Aqueduct. It is a global water risk-mapping tool, which sounds a bit like a digital dousing rod used to find drinking water. Most water resource mapping is done with IoT data these days, but there's still a place for dousing magic.

"Ten out of the U.K.'s 12 regional water and sewer utilities confirmed that they at least occasionally use dowsing rods, also known as divining rods or witching sticks, to locate underground water sources," according to an NPR article published in late 2017. However, most dousing was done by individuals and not as a matter of company policy. The utility companies, you may have guessed, prefer the certitude of data over the charm of a stick.

Aqueduct is a web-based interactive platform that measures river flood impacts by urban damage, affected GDP, and affected population at the country, state, and river basin scale—all of which rely on large datasets. Everything from leaks in major water lines in large cities to drinking water quality is monitored around the globe. Big data and sophisticated data analytics are behind this level of granular magic on a global scale.

The Aqueduct project also makes data available for download so that others, including corporate citizens, can execute other good works and be socially responsible in long-term planning. One example of that is the freely downloadable Aqueduct Water Stress Projections Data, which "includes indicators of change in water supply, water demand, water stress, and seasonal variability, projected for the coming decades under scenarios of climate and economic growth."

Analytics attacks malaria in Zambia

Visualize No Malaria is a campaign to eradicate malaria in Zambia by 2021. Malaria kills 600,000 people every year. More than 90 percent of its victims are in sub-Saharan Africa and a majority of those are under 5 years old. UNICEF estimates that more than 40 percent of the world’s population live in malaria-risk areas.

The effort is led by a group of volunteer data experts who employ data to aid health professionals in identifying malaria hot spots early and acting before the disease spreads. Included in their work was the design of operational dashboards to cue health and government workers where malaria is brewing. This way, bed nets can be installed where malaria has cropped up. Other measures include eradicating mosquitoes in areas the data indicates have the highest incidents of disease and dispensing medications to areas that need it the most.

The group used analytics and visualization tools to crunch the data from numerous sources, including medical reports, location insights, and satellite imagery. They also used automated workflow for data analytics, cloud-based communication capabilities, high-speed database solutions, storage services, and user experience techniques. The campaign uses Tableau’s visual analytics software to help with disease control and outbreak prevention.

“Tableau and PATH were the original pairing on the project,” says Steve Schwartz, senior public affairs manager at Tableau. Beyond donating software, Tableau has been an active technology participant, making the pieces come together for both PATH and the Zambian government.

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PATH is a nonprofit global health organization dedicated to accelerating health equity to people everywhere. It advises and partners with public institutions, businesses, investors, and interested groups to solve some of the world’s worst and most pressing health issues.

“Through that process, and with the support of our Tableau Zen Masters including Jonathan Drummey, Anya A’hearn, and Allan Walker, we identified additional technologies that could be an asset to building and scaling the project. This is true both in Zambia and with the replication of the project in Senegal,” says Schwartz. Other technologies were identified, which led other partners to come onboard, including Twilio, DataBlick, Slalom Consulting, Alteryx for Good, Exasol, Mapbox, and DigitalGlobe.

“Data that used to take months to collect is now being reported and utilized in near real time by everyone from ministerial staff to regional health clinic doctors to community health workers themselves,” Schwartz notes. “We’ve seen similar disease surveillance and management deployed against a variety of diseases in Vietnam, Liberia, Kenya, and Guinea.”

Bloomberg and Data for Good Exchange spur innovation and ideas

Data for Good Exchange is an annual conference run by Bloomberg, now in its fifth year, as part of the financial publisher’s ongoing advocacy of using data science and human capital to solve humanity’s problems. The conference is meant as a place to collaborate and share ideas on how to use data for social good.

“The Data for Good Exchange is facilitating meaningful conversations about how we can use data to drive positive change—to focus attention on problems that might not be addressed by market forces, for problems in government or the public sector, for people who do not hold significant market power, or for problems that might otherwise be ignored by the market,” says Gideon Mann, head of data science in the Office of the CTO at Bloomberg.

Some of the projects highlighted in previous Data for Good Exchange conferences include:

“Bloomberg is an organization that truly recognizes the value of data, both in analyzing the global capital markets and facilitating social change, while data scientists are inherently focused on using their unique skill set to solve problems,” says Mann.

Blockchain Factom fights corruption and fraud, secures medical records

Using data for social good sometimes means making sure the data hasn’t been tampered with. Blockchain is designed precisely to authenticate and protect the validity of data.  

Factom is one such blockchain. It is used by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to secure digitized medical records, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. People in remote areas in developing countries can have spotty health records or none at all, which can negatively affect patient health, especially if the individuals are unable to tell doctors about their health conditions and allergies.

However, digitizing remote medical records and adding biometric verification can help to ensure that medicines and medical aid is received by the people it was intended for, rather than sold in an underground market. The Gates Foundation is seeking ways to improve global healthcare—and good, reliable patient record-keeping is crucial to its efforts.

“The Honduran government is investigating the use of Factom to secure land registry information for the country,” says Ben Jeater, founder of BuildingIM and chair of the marketing committee for the Factom blockchain project. Further, Factom was used in a Chinese court to prove copyright infringement. 

“While Factom can’t fix corruption of individuals, it can ensure the truth is presented when documents are involved,” says Jeater.

Casebook takes on child welfare, juvenile justice, and adult services

Some companies weave altruistic goals into their business plan. Among them are public benefit corporations (PBCs), a specific type of corporation wherein public benefit is a charter purpose, in combination with the traditional business goal of maximizing shareholder profit.

As a SaaS company, we provide software allowing state government agencies to identify which policies and practices work and which do not,” says Tristan Louis, CEO of Casebook (formerly Case Commons). “As a PBC, we are looking for ways to leverage that data to improve outcomes for everyone in the field.”

He adds, “Traditionally people trying to solve big challenges like homelessness, hunger, poverty, and child welfare try to do so on a case-by-case basis, but you can’t get any traction or solve the problems for many people that way. So we use data to do that.”

Louis says that everyone in the company wakes up every day determined to do good for society. In addition to using data to achieve those goals, Casebook works to improve AI so that machines do not forget the humanity in human understanding. Because the human element is often not visible in the data itself, his organization advocates assistive intelligence AI rather than automated intelligence AI so that humanitarian efforts at scale remain humane. “Sometimes racial and social justice are baked into predictive analytics,” Louis says. “But with applied AI, disparities occur at a much higher rate.”

Intuit saves small businesses from failing

Intuit, maker of TurboTax, QuickBooks, and Mint, uses big data to help people get on their feet by making loans for small businesses that don’t qualify for traditional bank loans.

To make it work, Intuit leverages automation and roughly 26 billion data inputs from QuickBooks. Intuit’s QuickBooks Capital team created a credit model that provides a powerful view of a small business’s trended cash flows. This renders insight into each customer’s business profitability, its ability to repay a loan, and the business’s relative performance based on profit margins compared with similar businesses.

“Access to funding is the key to new business success. Yet for many underserved small business owners, gaining access to loans is nearly impossible,” says Luke Voiles, director of QuickBooks Capital direct lending at Intuit. “Seventy percent of new businesses say they need funding to grow, but only 23 percent of these businesses obtain the funding they need. Growth is cut short, causing many of them to fail.

“By harnessing the power of data, QuickBooks Capital produced an automated credit model that ensures Intuit can extend loans and give financial access to underserved businesses without losing money,” says Voiles.

How to get involved

These are just a few of the data for social good projects happening every day around the world. If you feel inspired and would like to join an existing project or start a new project at your company, below are a few tips.

“This is a conversation we have often. It comes down to three big points,” says Tableau’s Schwartz:

Ground yourself in your core values. There are an infinite number of causes or projects your company can get involved with, so it’s important to know what to focus on and how to approach it. “For Tableau, we’re most interested in projects that address the root cause of an issue and the types of system change that can make a meaningful difference. And we understand that, at our best, we can be tremendous capacity builders for those in a position to make a real difference,” says Schwartz.

Understand what you’re good at. Understanding your company’s core competencies—and the limits of those competencies—is essential for building effective partnerships that help in these good works. “We are focused on finding good partners and help them put good information in the hands of decision-makers,” says Schwartz. “When it would be helpful, we’re quick to pull in additional resources—technology and consulting partners, our global community of users, other grant makers, even customers. We know that we alone don’t have all the answers, but we are in a great position to bring in the right help at the right time to do great things.”

Don’t give to your partners—invest in them. “Through Tableau Foundation, we have the opportunity to work with a wide variety of organizations and people working on difficult challenges,” says Schwartz. Put your partners in the best possible position to learn from the data, and adjust as needed. Ensure you have open lines of communication, that grantees are comfortable saying what works and what doesn’t, and what else you can do to promote change. “We’ve left behind heavy-handed agreements and only make unrestricted grants,” adds Schwartz. “These allow partners to change course when the data reveals an insight they may not have expected.”

How will your company use data to change the world?

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.