I love data; I’m a real and unabashed data geek. I'm the sci-fi nerd who has fun with data from Star Wars and analyzes World of Warcraft logs using SAS. More importantly, I love what data can do. I love the way it can show people new insights and new ideas, and perhaps even change their minds. I love being able to turn things upside-down by using data, or show a picture that is so stark, you just can’t question it — like these on the effect of climate change on the oceans. It blows my mind, and I know it has that affect on other people, too.
Most of all, though, I love it when data can be used to do actual good. I don’t mean when it helps companies or organizations to make better decisions, although that’s important. No, I mean social good — good for the world and for all of us. The amount of data that's out there, and the number of people with data science skills, not to mention the processing power, means that there is now real potential to solve big intractable problems like poverty and other humanitarian issues.
SAS is part of the Data for Good movement, and I'm involved in that. Data for Good encourages organizations and individuals to use data and analytics to solve some of the big and small crises of the world. These include poverty, health and education, for example, but are also on a smaller scale, for example, to helping non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or a hospital work out a problem.
Data for Good projects are wide-ranging, and are having major impact all round the world, from conservation in Africa to fighting opioid addiction in the US. The problem is that government agencies and NGOs have a lot of data, but often struggle to bring it together and make sense of it. Applying data science skills to the problem can really help. The Data for Good movement is necessary because many of these organizations can't afford to hire expensive data scientists, but need their skills and insight.
The impact of Data for Good projects can be surprising. For example, there's data and analysis related to mental illness that could have a huge impact on how services are designed. That's obvious, but the more important impact, however, is less obvious. It's often hard for people to seek treatment because of the possible stigma, but the statistics and data can be used to show people very clearly that they are not alone in suffering from these issues. That could go a long way to breaking down some of the barriers to seeking help.
Analytics also shows how apparently unconnected problems can be linked. Support workers on the front lines may understand these connections — for example, between drug abuse and child neglect, or vulnerability to human trafficking — but the government departments or agencies concerned may find it harder to bring these factors together. Showing the links in the data makes it harder to overlook or ignore these connections.
The unexpected impact of Data for Good
The answers are important in Data for Good projects, but the process is crucial too. In working with NGOs on humanitarian issues I've seen first-hand that studying the data helps NGOs focus on what really matters. Humanitarian work can be very emotional, and looking at the data helps people to step back, be objective and think more clearly.
The Data for Good process is also important in helping people get involved. It's easy to feel helpless in the face of humanitarian crises. Not all of us, for example, can do as Bob Geldof did in the 80's, and call his famous musician friends together to record a single to provide aid against famine in Africa (Do They Know It's Christmas?). In fact, with so many stories about how aid money is diverted to the wrong places and pockets, people aren't sure what they can do. But, using your expertise to help crunch data and solve problems? That’s real, genuine help. Data for good provides a way for people to do something useful and feel as though they're contributing — because they are.
I think that's probably my favorite thing about the Data for Good projects I've worked on: I feel like I'm making a difference. I may not be traveling to war-torn or disaster-struck areas, but in my own way, I am helping. I can analyze data quickly and make a difference to the people on the ground. I can bring awareness to humanitarian crises that don't get much airplay, like the current crisis in Ethiopia. Now that matters.
If you want to learn more about how data is being used for good around the globe, download this new ebook: Using data to change the world.