By the Blouin News Technology staff

Using big data for ‘the common good’

by in Personal Tech.

Volunteer hairstylist Venessa McGregor at Children's Aid Society of Toronto office in Scarborough. Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Volunteer hairstylist Venessa McGregor at Children’s Aid Society of Toronto office in Scarborough. Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Harnessing big data to improve business is on the minds of executives and operations leaders in most industries these days. Markets from healthcare to finance are looking at ways to capture data in order to improve products, processes, and relationships with customers. Here, there is a learning curve with new ways in which data can improve business operations emerging in unlikely places — namely charities. A recent report from the U.K.-based National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (Nesta) highlights how capturing and analyzing data can have transformative effects on the social action sector.

Big data can help charities improve their work by identifying appropriate grant makers, creating a broader understanding of the social economy via monitoring tools, and discovering “below the radar” work. Nesta grant funded research projects that were designed to “explore two dimensions of how big and open data can be used for the common good,” according to the group. The projects were aimed at discovering how charities can develop better products, and how data can help people or firms interested in social action become more aware of work being done in areas of civil society and to subsequently get involved.

One of the research projects involved a partnership between the Citizens Advice Bureau and Datakind, “a global community of data scientists interested in how data can be used for a social purpose”. Nesta funded them in order to explore the ways in which the data that the Citizens Advice Bureau collects on social issues can be used to develop a “real-time dashboard to identify social issues”. Another project brought together five organizations including the RSA, Cardiff University, The Demos Centre for Analysis of Social Media, NCVO and European Alternatives hope to explore how data–driven methods can help bring “below the radar” social action — or informal action — to the forefront of civil society. The research examined how open data analysis and social media analysis can be used to better understand local assets for informal projects.

That latter project shed some light on social media data. The report states:

Data–driven methods, particularly those looking at Twitter data, can help us understand new types of hidden social action. The work by the RSA, Cardiff University and CASM show that people do have conversations about local social issues online, and that data–driven methods can indeed be used to understand these new types engagement and of hidden social action that results from conversations.

But not all questions were answered; the report further notes that “what remains unclear is the extent to which activity and engagement online add value and impact, either through the distribution of valuable knowledge between peers or resulting in offline social action.”

In the spirit of democratizing data, the dashboard created between the Citizens Advice Bureau and Datakind makes Citizens Advice data more visible, which then prompts people to ask questions about certain social issues instead of relying on data analysts to crunch the numbers and provide their own analysis. Nesta says that the dashboard has enabled a collective alertness and better equips the general population to explore issues.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that big data is not used nearly enough to understand the power of social connection and action. Entities like Twitter can be used much more than they currently are and play a role in connecting those interested in social action to local projects, and grant makers to projects they will fund.