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Big Data for Social Good

Big Data for Social Good is constantly changing the fates of thousands of companies, big or small. Proliferation of tools for mining and analysing vast amounts of data are ensuring a wider reach within the corporate landscape. But can big data be used for the larger good of society?

Social Media to the Rescue in times of Emergencies

In times of natural disasters, access to more information undoubtedly means more lives getting saved. This is evident from people taking cues from hashtagged tweets or other such updates across social media to avoid the severely-hit regions. Internet companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook have not only acted as a communication medium in times of emergency, rather they have been proactive in reaching out to as many people as possible either asking for information or for relief aid. In this regard, Google has tried making crowdsourcing work with its Google Person Finder initiative, starting from the 2010 Haiti earthquakes to the Typhoon Yolanda that hit in November 2013. Twitter recently launched ‘Twitter Alerts’ to alert people on critical developments such as weather or accidents. In this service, when users follow the Twitter handles of participating organisations, they get alerts on mobiles and apps for every tweet that is marked as an ‘alert’.

Examples of Big Data for Social Good

Big data certainly has the potential to positively impact thousands of lives across the globe. Let’s explore the progress so far in this context.

1. Predicting food shortage using big data

Food shortages across regions can be predicted by monitoring several variables together such as – market prices, drought conditions, seasonal variations, migrations, previous produce etc.

2. Determining causes of student learnings

A key challenge in the upliftment of any society is the quality of education. Big data can help in analysing the factors, big and small, that contribute towards creating the perfect conditions (and curriculums) for maximizing learning outcomes.

3. Figuring out the crime trends

Studies have led to the hypothesis of crime being contagious from one region to another. It is possible to correlate different regions with the probability of a certain crime taking place, given the time, place and the nature of the crime.

Initiatives for driving Data Professionals toward Social Projects

There is a wide disparity between the number of skilled professionals required for handling big data problems and the pool of available data scientists, analysts and other professionals. The number of data professionals willing to work towards social causes is much more sparse. Hence there is a need to train aspiring minds to solve the biggest problems of the world using data. The Eric & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good fellowship funded by Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt works towards a unique, but essential goal – grooming data analysts to contribute towards social causes. The fellowship allows aspiring data scientists to work on big data technologies such as data mining and machine learning for social projects.

DataKind is a one of its kind initiative, with a singular aim of bringing together leading data scientists willing to contribute pro bono and social organisations that can channelize their skills for the greater good. The two major services that DataKind provides are:

  • DataDives – a weekend event where volunteering data professionals work towards selected big data problems; and
  • DataCorps – relatively longer-term projects ranging in duration from 1-6 months where data scientists, technologists and project managers can work in their spare time on structured projects.
Governments and non-profit organisations across the world are embracing disruptive technological developments to make lives better. More data means more insights and relatively more opportunities, even at the macro level. If big data can be employed to support the causes run by public institutions, NGOs or individuals working at the grassroots level (especially in the third-world countries), millions of people can look forward to a brighter tomorrow.

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