The Social Impact of Big Data – Seven Amazing Takeaways from Skoll World Forum

While researching for a forthcoming blog I’m writing about applications of “Big Data” for social entrepreneurs, I ran across this amazing blog series by the Skoll World Forum called “How Can Big Data Have a Social Impact.”

The insights shared in this series are worth any business person’s time to read, as they show how typical problems with big data we face in industry are exacerbated when trying to solve the world’s hardest problems. Also fascinating is how the convergence of big data disciplines with cloud, mobile, and social technologies creates amazing solutions – but only when it improves the human condition.


“Big Data” has the power to improve the human condition or dehumanize and create inhumane conditions.
[SOURCE] © 2011 Thierry Gregorius, used according to Creative Commons License.

Here are 7 amazing take-aways I gleaned from this very well done series:

  1.  Finding “Big Truth”: Big data provides the opportunity to both shed light on big truths, such as figuring out really is happening in the Syria conflict, as well as collect large sample sizes on small findings such as the effectiveness of specific learning objectives in electronic textbooks for disabled students – as described in the blog “Big Data Means More Than Big Profits” by Jim Fruchterman, President and CEO of Benetech.
  2.  Data Quality vs. Problem Severity: The kinds of problems that mission-driven organizations try to tackle often have severe data quality problems – far more difficult than typical corporate business intelligence concerns.   This stems from the fact they may be trying to fuse disparate data sources with not just mismatched formats, but varying levels of detail, fidelity, and veracity such as marrying field databases of witness testimonials to repurposed data from other sources (see next point).
  3.  Unintended Big Data Opportunities: There’s a lot of data can be repurposed from “unintended data exhaust” such as on the ground field observations and different mobile applications in use. These can be used for predicting and detecting issues such as disease outbreaks and corruption, as described in the blog by Jason Payne, Philanthropy Engineering Lead of Palantir Technologies, “Fueling and Igniting the Big Data Engine for Social Good.”
  4.  Understanding Anecdotes: Just like corporate big data projects, detailed understanding of “anecdotes” (more than just sentiment) is powerful source of information that can help learn concepts, create context, and provide the basis of turning information into knowledge and wisdom. This is nicely described in the blog “Moving From Big Data to Big Wisdom” by Darin McKeever, Deputy Directory, Charitable Sector, Global Policy & Advocacy  at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  5.  Know Your Problem Before You Hack: Just like any good corporate IT project, you have to know the problem you are trying to solve – the question you are trying to ask. This involves not just assembling a bunch of computer programmers and data scientists into a hackathon, but working closely with subject matter experts on the social concerns you are trying to address. Jake Porway, Executive Director of DataKind makes this point through several examples in his blog, “You Can’t Just Hack Your Way to Social Change.”
  6.  Donating Information Assets: If the statement “big data is the new oil” is true, then public and corporate data and information are assets that can be donated to the public commons, as mentioned by Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse, in his blog “A New Type of Philanthropy: Donating Data.”
  7.  Keeping Focus on Public Good: We are overdue in having a societal discussion about big data. What is our new right to privacy in this overly digital age – particularly important if we now advocate making more data a “public commonwealth.” Second, how do we avoid a “dictatorship of data”, not applying empathy and compassion, and even worse, letting knee-jerk reactions take over by what we first see in this new visibility. These and other great points are raised by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, Professor at Oxford Internet Institute, in his blog “Big Data’s Bright and Dark Sides.”

If you’ve read this far, then save another hour or two, and read the blog series at Skoll World Foundation. It’s well worth your time!


  1. Reblogged this on Think Good Inc..

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