Tackling Social Problems with Big Data

On an average day, someone may log onto Facebook, use a mobile device, and make an online purchase. A commonality among these day-to-day actions is that readily-analyzable data trickle from them. Facebook is a source for demographic information capture that can extend to network analysis. Mobile device log files can yield insights on user behavior. If you have ever made a purchase on Amazon, you will see a "Recommended for You" section, a collection of curated products derived from your purchasing behavior.

Dismissed by some as an overhyped jargon and heralded by others as a revolutionary technology, big data has caught fire, rapidly igniting companies and researchers to act. Companies marvel at its utility in marketing and optimizing business processes while researchers tout its promise. As more and more companies grapple with the decision to invest in big data analytics, governments, nonprofit organizations, and socially-conscious projects are taking strides to collect data and ensure data transparency.

Recently, big data became more widespread in the public sector. Cities have taken measures to make data open, enabling residents to access statistics on topics ranging from water usage to fire department incidents. Boston published a collection of open data, which encompasses a wide range of topics - building permits to a list of urban farms. Open Data Cincinnati is an initiative that enables residents to look through datasets of information collected by the city, with information on topics such as restaurant inspections and police complaints. San Francisco's Citywide Planning Division has created a neighborhood dashboard to keep track of each community's sustainability, keeping track of metrics like energy and water usage.

Despite this progress, we continue to face challenges when it comes to using big data for social change. While it is incredibly helpful to make data available, making social data actionable is not always clear. One of the problems lies in the fact that data regarding social issues are sometimes unstructured, making it difficult to manage. Data governance standards are inadequate - data capture, storage, and curation may be inconsistent at times, making it difficult to transform the data for analysis.

In addition to the aforementioned problems that may hinder making social data actionable, part of the problem may lie in the status quo - some individuals may feel as though data analysis should be left to the professionals working at large companies and research institutes. While companies and research institutes have made significant contributions to using big data for social good, individuals who do not work in the business and science communities should not feel deterred from tackling datasets. Open datasets provided by city governments are useless if the city's residents are not engaging with them. "Smart cities" would not be smart if they ignored the needs of the people who inhabit them.

It is crucial to cultivate a stronger culture of mission-driven innovation to encourage more individuals to participate in using big data for social change. Progress has been made on this front - and it is not just cities that are making an effort to use big data for social change - more and more projects are entering the civic technology space, with interest in civic technology growing. For example, Driven Data, a startup, hosts mission-driven data science competitions that encourage individuals to use large data sets to build models for socially-driven topics. Examples include "Predict Restaurant Inspections" and "Modeling Women's Healthcare Decisions." Organizations like Code for America have done a great job in encouraging citizens to participate in coding for social change. Student organizations such as Global App Initiative at Boston University invite students of all backgrounds to learn how to design and develop mobile applications for nonprofits.

Moving forward, we also need to use more interdisciplinary approaches when using big data for social change. Social problems are multifaceted - it would be imprudent to approach a social problem from one angle, or dive into the analysis without gaining more context of the problem.

It is as easy to be fascinated by big data as it is to dismiss big data as a vacuous buzzword. Prognoses for the future of the notorious big data ranges from promising prescriptive analytics to a grim consumer uprising over privacy concerns. However, as with any other form of new technology, big data's uses are primarily shaped by people. If used well, big data can accelerate social change.