New Year's resolution: Let's use data for good

The practice of gathering consumer data often takes companies into uncomfortable territory, but the growing data philanthropy movement can turn it into a force for good.

The data economy is thriving, but for consumers, the payback from supplying that data is often opaque at best. Research from JWT’s Innovation Group last year found that 71% of people in the UK were not clear why companies needed their data, or what they were doing with it. This makes for an uneasy relationship, but a movement turning data to benevolent use, not profit, could restore some faith.

The data that powers consumer and business understanding can also be applied to humanitarian and development challenges. For example, mobile phone geolocation data has been used to analyse the spread of malaria in Kenya, while anonymised emails have been mined to provide insights on global migration patterns.

Access to the right information, however, is not always a level playing field. Non-profit organisations don’t always have the datasets they need, or equally, the skills and resources to mine them for insights. These treasures tend to be in the hands of big business, along with global reach and access to the finest data science talent.

Enter data philanthropy: an opportunity for the private sector to step into the breach. Data philanthropy provides an opportunity to deliver meaningful impact, letting companies put their data, talent and technological resources to work for the greater good, not just for profit. In her 2016 TED talk, UPS Advanced Analytics Manager, Mallory Soldner describes it as "the future of corporate social responsibility."

Companies that get involved can also expect a warm reception from consumers. JWT research reveals that 50% of people in the UK are more likely to give their business to brands or companies that share data to try to tackle big challenges facing society.

For businesses that want to help out, there are a number of ways to get involved: donating data, supplying expertise or sharing technology solutions.

Those with useful datasets can conduct analysis and share the findings themselves, or go one step further and donate that data for others to put to good use. The GSMA, which represents mobile operators worldwide, launched its Big Data for Social Good initiative this year. The project aims to leverage data from members to help aid agencies tackle issues like disease epidemics. Similarly, Uber’s new Movement platform shares anonymised data from over two billion trips to help urban planning around the world. The aim is to tackle congestion, improve infrastructure and ultimately make cities better places to live.

Often non-profits may have their own data, but lack the skills to extract valuable insight. So some businesses are donating their skills and talent.  Aimia, the owner of the UK’s Nectar loyalty scheme has launched its own Data Philanthropy scheme, where analysts supply expertise to organisations like housing charity Centrepoint, to help with recruiting, fundraising and optimising operations. Giving staff the opportunity to get involved in meaningful projects like this neatly feeds a growing appetite among employees to work for organisations which have a positive impact on society.

Other businesses are taking their existing technology solutions and repurposing them for humanitarian use. Global logistics company UPS has adapted its proprietary Trackpad technology to create a tool called Relief Link for the UNHCR (see main image). Formerly, UNHCR-registered refugees were tracked with nothing more than pencil and paper, and staff struggled to ensure fair distribution of food, blankets and other emergency supplies. Relief Link enables digital monitoring of distribution ensuring everyone gets what they need, while delivering operational efficiencies into the bargain: tests in Mauritanian refugee camps also led to a 50% reduction in distribution times.

Mastercard was among the pioneers in corporate data philanthropy and has shared data and talent on numerous initiatives. The company launched its Center for Inclusive Growth back in 2013 with the goal of developing economic growth and financial inclusion around the world. Recently, they partnered with Unilever to collect payments data from small and micro-businesses in Kenya which could then serve as a proxy credit score, allowing the owners to access banking and financial institutions for loans instead of pursuing more informal routes.

Sharing data is not without its challenges, of course, chief among them the absolute requirement to preserve personal data privacy. JWT’s research found that more than 9 out of 10 Britons want more control over who can access their data and what they do with it. Assuming consumers consent to its use, any data shared should be anonymised.

Companies may also hesitate to share data fearing it could benefit their competitors. The UN’s Global Pulse recommends countermeasures, such as sharing under non-disclosure agreements, or pooling data from several companies within a sector so it cannot be identified.

Ultimately, there are broader business benefits to putting data at the service of humanity. Tackling human challenges like poverty, disaster or inequality is not just about social impact, it’s good business sense too, not least in nurturing a new pool of potential customers in developing markets. When people do well, businesses do well too.

Marie Stafford is European director of Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson London