2011-12-09

Co.Exist

Data Philanthropy: Open Data For World-Changing Solutions

The massive amount of information collected about us by governments and companies sits mostly unused and unsorted. What if that data could be given to scientists and organizations who could mine it for information about society?

Sure, we’ll take your money, but what we really want is your data.

The next movement in charitable giving and corporate citizenship may be for corporations and governments to donate data, which could be used to help track diseases, avert economic crises, relieve traffic congestion, and aid development. The UN, through its own data initiative Global Pulse, is pushing for a global "data philanthropy movement," a term reportedly coined by World Economic Forum CTO Brian Behlendorf during the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.

The basic concept, writes Global Pulse’s Robert Kirkpatrick, is a global data commons. Companies, governments, and individuals contribute anonymous, aggregated datasets from all over the world. Kirkpatrick points to the work of researchers who are pushing the boundaries of thinking about open data: Georgetown University Professor Michael Nelson’s ideas about how companies can benefit from greater transparency through "strategic leaking," as well as Jane Yakowitz’s The Tragedy of the Data Commons, which warns against the idea of personal data as property, arguing that it should be considered a protected public asset to enable public policy research (you can see her present on the topic here).

Today, we are nowhere near that vision. Publicly available datasets are scattered, messy, and incomplete. And tons of data is held by corporations, but not distributed, even anonymously, because of privacy concerns. Yet the reality is that many of the details of our daily lives are being tracked and monitored by the various devices and digital communication platforms we interact with on a daily basis. For better or worse, scientists can tap into these databases to deduce extraordinary information about our lives and larger trends about humanity as a whole.

A February 2010 study by physicists at Boston’s Northeastern University, for example, analyzed more than 16 million calls made by 100,000 mobile-phone users in Europe. By following the data, the probable future location of individuals in this study could be predicted with 93.6% accuracy. "For us, people look like little particles that move in space and that occasionally communicate with each other," researcher Albert-Laszlo Barabasi told the Wall Street Journal. "We have turned society into a laboratory where behavior can be objectively followed."

That’s sounds like a cautionary tale, but it also reveals the incredible power such datasets possess. We may be able to use them to help manage epidemics, respond to disasters, or to simply understand what’s going on in society. But then again, we may choose to use them for far darker purposes.

Nathan Wolfe, who leads Global Viral Forecasting, relies on mining the open web for signs of outbreaks. In a column on CNN.com, he argues that "none of [the risks of open data][/the] are insurmountable and the significant potential public benefit outweighs the costs of resolving them."

"We are calling on companies to provide data as part of their strategic philanthropy, and to work with recipients like ourselves to establish processes to safeguard and properly anonymize data," he writes. "When properly stripped of personal identifiers, anonymized data will provide the answers to many questions of significant value to human populations. In 10 years we may very well look back and see that the information we all provided as we led our connected lives helped change the world for the better—and perhaps even saved our own lives."

Either way, the coming debate over public and private data, and what we are willing to assign to the global commons, is set to redefine how humanity understands itself, and manages its common future.

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