Questions on how to turn data — specifically corporate data — into a driver for improving public goods and services were at the center of a panel discussion at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit in New York this week. Experts took to the stage to discuss the progress made, governance strategies, and a future where the public and private sectors will work together to use corporate data to improve public services.
Mark Dalton, chief of the Information Services Branch for the U.N. Office, noted that we are at a tipping point in the humanitarian space. Meaning there is huge potential for corporate data to be used for humanitarian efforts thanks to the growing connectivity in crisis areas around the world as more people obtain and use mobile devices. Dalton added that we can start accessing data records to understand the context of crises, for example.
Indeed, Robert Kirkpatrick, director of U.N. Global Pulse, Executive Office of the Secretary-General, emphasized that projects using mobile data have been in the works for a few years, although there is a significant need for the private and public sectors to come together on such initiatives. He said that Global Pulse collaborated with a mobile operator in central Africa and a world food program, and that they retrieved data on how much people were spending money on food at local markets. They subsequently obtained access to records on how people spent money on their mobile phones. They were able to predict, with 89% accuracy, how much people were eating and how much money they were spending on food. “Every mobile operator is running a food security network without knowing it,” he said before adding, “We have to find a way to work with the private sector so we can change outcomes for millions of people.”
Of course, the question of the private sector actually divulging data is a tricky one — corporations are leery of providing information that can be used against them at some point. Another question emerges: what would be the incentive for corporations to actually share data at all? Kirkpatrick noted that getting access to corporate data can actually turn into better business decisions, which is a win-win.
But another worry comes from the integrity of the data itself. The discussion turned towards questioning the authenticity of data provided by any company in this context. Trusted platforms, policy frameworks, and understanding risks are all a part of efforts to getting corporations to agree to hand over valuable information. William Hoffman, head of Data Driven Initiatives at the World Economic Forum, noted that “We need ‘chambers of iron and steel,’” he said, “so that the fire of big data can go in and give direction.”
As Kirkpatrick said, data is a new natural resource. “Its benefits are not reaching those who can benefit from it. There’s a huge need to understand the risks, how to contain it, and the policy frameworks to regulate it,” he emphasized. “We are seeing an opportunity to track changes in human life.”