A New Social Good for the Information Age

A New Social Good for the Information Age

Despite the destruction, it could have been much worse.

I do not want to minimize the terrible disaster that struck Nepal on that day. Instead, I would like to argue that data, and in particular a new form of social responsibility, helped Nepal avoid an even worse catastrophe. This disaster may have lessons to teach other disasters.

After the Nepal earthquake, many actors, including the government, the civil society, and the private sectors, came together to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis. One of the most notable players was Ncell, Nepal’s largest mobile network provider. Ncell shared its mobile data with Flowminder, a non-profit Swedish organization, shortly after the earthquake.

Recent estimates show that 2.5 quintillion bits of data are generated every day. Nine-tenths (90%) of the data available today was created just in the two years prior to 2015.

The potential benefits of this data explosion are being viewed with great enthusiasm. The Economist wrote about turning “dust into gold” by mining the massive streams of “data waste” left by users of mobile devices and social networks.

It is less well-known, however, that the vast majority of data is still locked away and private and is owned by companies, governments, and other organizations. The public benefit is limited.

Data responsibility is a way for organizations to break down private barriers and make their data available to the public. It is a form of corporate responsibility that fits the 21st Century, especially in the private sector.

Data responsibility is still relatively rare today. Ncell in Nepal is one of the few companies that has opened their data.

There are some encouraging signs. In Jakarta, researchers in Australia used some of Twitter’s data to build the website. It gave real-time information on flooding. This enabled better management and assessment, especially during the monsoon.

The Orange Group in Senegal initiated the Data for Development Challenge and shared their data with different research teams to identify patterns and solutions that can improve health care, agriculture, urban planning, and energy statistics.

Data is used in Senegal to improve urban planning and health. Reuters

The winning team was able to use mobile phone data as an accurate proxy for energy needs. This allowed them to find bottom-up solutions that could be applied to changing energy demand.

Three Pillars of Data Responsibility

These examples demonstrate that data can be used to improve lives and save them. To fully exploit the data’s potential, three conditions need to be met. These three pillars are the foundations of data accountability.

1. Share the wealth

It is a duty to share data with the public when it’s obvious that doing so will benefit the public. Data sharing is not always a popular idea among data owners (often with good reason), but it can be very beneficial to society when done properly.

2. Duty to protect

There are risks associated with sharing, including privacy, security, and other rights of individuals. It is, therefore, imperative that organizations act responsibly when sharing data, taking every precaution to protect the data and the people who have provided their data.

It is now well-documented that failing to protect your data can have serious consequences. Data that is not anonymized properly before sharing or de-anonymized information that leaks to the public is the most obvious problem.

De-anonymization of data that is ostensibly anonymized can also occur, resulting in information being released for public benefit causing harm to individuals.

In New York City, the Taxi and Limousine Commission released, as a response to a request from the public, data collected by various taxi and ride-sharing companies on times and locations of pickup and dropoff, fares, and tips. Within days, however, several civic hacker organizations had identified relevant taxi medallion numbers and licenses.

The results were alarming and could violate rights: for instance, the data was used to determine a driver’s income and identify travel and spending patterns of consumers, as well as details about several celebrities. This increased their risk of being stalked.

The good intentions that guide data releases should be accompanied by a strong sense of responsibility at every step of the information chain – from data collection to processing, analysis, and sharing.

3. Duty to Act

In order for the released data to be of public benefit, officials and other stakeholders must also adopt policy and make interventions based on the insights gained. The potential is only that if it’s not acted upon.

The duty to act becomes particularly apparent in the fight against corruption. Datasets released by governments and other organizations have been a powerful tool in exposing corruption and increasing transparency around the world.

Brazil’s Transparency Portal, for example, was created by the Office of the Comptroller General in 2004 to increase fiscal transparency through the sharing of budget data. It is now one of the primary tools used by the country to identify and document corrupt practices, with an average of 900,000.00 unique visitors per month.

The online platform Improve Your School in Mexico provides information to citizens about the school’s performance. It helps parents select the best education for their child and become involved in the schooling process.

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