Strata Week: Using data to maximize our human potential

Debating big data' potential social impact, CISPA is back, and a look at how cities are benefitting from big data.

Big data’s big social impact

In partnership with the Harvard Business Review, the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship has been running a series of posts addressing and debating big data’s potential for large-scale social impact. A couple posts from the series published this week stood out.

Robert Kirkpatrick, director of the Global Pulse initiative, argued that donating data needs to be the next evolution of philanthropic giving. He pointed out that many of the public programs we all take for granted in arts, health and education would not exist without support from the private sector, and noted that potential societal benefits from big data initiatives are no less important. “But the public sector cannot fully exploit Big Data without leadership from the private sector,” he wrote. “What we need is action that goes beyond corporate social responsibility. We need Big Data to be treated as a public good.”

In a separate post, Benetech CEO Jim Fruchterman urged social entrepreneurs and mission-driven businesses who are working on solutions to society’s problems to think about how big data could help further their causes, make their products better or save them money or time. He noted that lots of information is generated in the social sphere that could be used to create positive social change, not just generate profits. He wrote:

“Massive amounts of data are collected on the pollution in our cities and the changes in our climate. The more we use technology in our education and health systems, the more data we collect about how people learn and what keeps us healthy or makes us sick. These information-centric areas are built for Big Data — data that if better understood could help provide a pathway to maximize our human potential, instead of maximizing profits.”

Harvard Business Review also has partnered with the Bridgespan Group to host a series titled Scaling Social Impact: The Role of Technology and Data that runs through March 28 (You can follow the series on Twitter). Susan Davis, founder and president and CEO of BRAC USA addressed the controversial notion that technology will end world poverty.

Cheaper technology and the associated increase in productivity is resulting in a world of plenty, she wrote, but “[t]he trick is making sure everyone shares in the coming abundance — or at least has a fair shot at doing so. To do that, it’s vital that technology be suitable and relevant to the lives of its users.” Davis acknowledges that that’s easier said than done, but she outlines three guidelines for social entrepreneurs to heed: invest in local innovation, take the human dimensions of the problem and the solution into account, and immerse yourself in the project’s details. “[T]he evidence says that when we tether enthusiasm to reality, the reality starts to budge,” she noted.

CISPA returns to Congress

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) bill has returned to Congress. To help get out the word and to inform the public, Rainey Reitman at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) posted a list of all the government agencies that would be allowed access to your data if the bill passes. Reitman explained in the post that if CISPA passes, companies would be allowed to “collect your information in order to ‘protect the rights and property’ of the company, and then share that information with third parties, including the government, so long as it is for ‘cybersecurity purposes.’” Reitman noted further that the government could then “use the information for purposes wholly unrelated to cybersecurity — such as ‘national security,’ a term the bill leaves undefined.”

In response to the bill’s return to Congress, the Internet Defense League (IDL) — the organizers behind the Internet blackout against SOPA — raised its “Cat Signal” to raise awareness. According to a press release, “Over 30,000 websites — including Reddit, Duck Duck Go, and Craigslist — are currently broadcasting an action tool that allows users to click to contact their Congressperson with the message, ‘CISPA is Back. This bill sacrifices privacy without improving security. We deserve both.’”

Chris Finan took a look at the flaws of the bill in a post at Wired and argued that we should fix it rather than shoot it down altogether. He acknowledged that “CISPA’s sweeping, vague language creates exemptions to all privacy laws,” but argued that we can have both security and privacy “[b]ecause let’s face it: We do need better cybersecurity to protect Americans and our economy from harm.” He argued further that “compared to major natural disasters, cyber attacks by a capable adversary could actually affect basic infrastructure like power and water supply for a much more prolonged period and across a much wider geographic area.”

Finan proposed several changes to the bill that might bring both sides to an agreement, including requiring companies to strip out personal information; requiring data shared with the government to flow first to civilian agencies, “then only to defense, intelligence and law enforcement agencies when necessary for clearly and precisely defined cybersecurity purposes”; and add carefully tailored “corporate liability protections.” You can read Finan’s full post at Wired.

Cities putting data to work

Jen Crozier, VP of Global Citizenship Initiatives at IBM and Rebecca Shockley, global analytics leader at IBM Institute of Business Value, took a look at how cities are beginning to harness big data to inform city planning and operations decisions and to improve city services. They pointed to the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge, in which an IBM team spends three days in a city to analyze its local issues and offer insights, and highlighted two cities that have benefitted from the program.

City officials in Syracuse, New York, addressed an issue with abandoned housing — the IBM team analyzed such areas as police data, social services, and education to demonstrate “that certain trends can presage a decline in public safety, property value, and small business growth.” Officials in Edmonton, Alberta, tackled road safety issues and are implementing the IBM teams recommendations of using data to project the outcome of proposed traffic initiatives and monitor agency performance, for example. “Using a data-driven approach,” Crozier and Shockley noted, “a city can transform how it fundamentally organizes and operates, making it a better place to live, work, and play.”

Along those same lines, Business Insider’s Julie Bort took a look at seven cities that are putting technology, such as big data, sensor and mobile technology, to use in interesting ways. Los Angeles, for instance, is testing “smart parking,” which uses sensors that communicate with mobile apps to help drivers find open parking spaces. She also highlights the ability to pay for “smart cabs” in New York City with a smartphone and Rio de Janeiro’s “Rio Operations Center” that monitors city events in real-time. You can read her full report at Business Insider.

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