Big Data Means More Than Big Profits

This post originally appeared as part of an online debate about How Big Data Can Have a Social Impact, which the Harvard Business Review Blog Network hosted jointly with the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Right now I'm in Oxford, England, for the annual Skoll World Forum!

Big Data is all the rage in Silicon Valley. From Facebook to Netflix, companies are tracking and analyzing our searches, our purchases, and just about every other online activity that will give them more insight into who we are and what we want. And though they use the massive sets of data they collect to help create a better experience for their consumers (such as customized ads or tailored movie recommendations), their primary goal is to use what they learn to maximize profits. But can Big Data also create positive social change?

Many activities in the social sphere also generate lots of information. 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.

Now, as a pragmatic idealist I’ve always believed that technology could be an immense force for good in the world, but I’ve also recognized that great technology wouldn’t get developed—no matter how beneficial—if it was missing one important factor: big profits. That’s what inspired me to start Benetech, a nonprofit tech company, over 20 years ago. I knew we could help a lot of people if we focused on finding a sustainable—instead of a highly profitable—way to develop technology for the social good. As we build new enterprises, our goal is for them to break even from revenues (or come close), while also making the maximum positive impact.

Let me share two examples of the Big Data opportunities we’ve seized at Benetech: a long-standing use of data that has global implications and a nascent one that has just launched.

First, we’ve been using data to aid the human rights movement, especially in providing evidence for truth commissions and war crimes tribunals, for a decade. Human rights workers collect massive amounts of information about abuse that occurs in their countries—the individual stories are compelling, but scientific analysis of the collective data can inspire action. For example, Benetech’s recent analysis for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—using information from six databases compiled by Syrian human rights monitors and one database collected by the Syrian government—found that at least 60,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. This number was significantly more than the existing estimates that had dominated news and policy discussions. The analysis made news globally and expanded an international conversation. Here big data affected a global policy debate—and will hopefully make a big difference.

Second, Bookshare, a social enterprise operated by Benetech, last year processed requests for more than 1.3 million downloads of accessible books through its online library, to over 200,000 people with disabilities such as blindness and severe dyslexia. We already collect a great deal of information like which books are downloaded most, but our delivery model has been similar to that of print textbooks: “Here it is; hope it’s useful!” We don’t know if the student ever gets past Chapter 1.

Last month we launched a new feature for Bookshare that allows students to read books within a web browser, instead of needing additional software or tools. Over the next few years, we’ll be able to collect (ethically and legally with proper respect for privacy) and analyze the many millions of interactions our users are having with these books. Talk about Big Data! We’ll learn much about things like how (or whether) textbooks get used and which approaches to a specific learning objective work best. Just like data has been used to understand why online shoppers often abandon their shopping carts without completing their purchase, perhaps we could use the same techniques to understand why students abandon learning. Looking forward, we can imagine a world where content is matched to the learner because we’ll be able to tailor education to the individual and how they best learn.

Social entrepreneurs should focus on Big Data for the social good. Of course, data has to be collected in ways that match our value systems and respect ethics, privacy, and informed consent. Benetech’s experience collecting information about human rights violations and about people with disabilities, two highly sensitive areas, shows that this can be done.

I urge social entrepreneurs and mission-driven businesses who have developed a solution that involves digital information to think about what Big Data will mean to their efforts: How can it make your services or products better, solve more of the problem, or do more with the same or less money? Working together, we can show how Big Data makes more than big profits—it can make a big difference.


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