Data for Good - a question of relevancy

Profile picture for user Neil Raden By Neil Raden April 1, 2019
Data for Good? A personal view from Neil Raden.

I’ve written before, elsewhere, about some reservations I have about the Data for Good movement, and I’m afraid I still do. There is an undeniable need for our technology to lend a hand to fix the world, whether it’s a big world or a little world. The problem is, technology isn’t enough and most of what we have to offer is neither sufficient nor relevant for most of the problems.

In “Why ‘data for good’ lacks precision,” Sara Hooker describes a number of areas where a lot of effort (and publicity) to apply analytical models to solve humanitarian and societal problems falls short or even problematic at best. To begin with, most real-world problems, as opposed to building the perfect customer experience or the best recommendation engine, actually have very little data. This in turn leads to the next problem: most techie volunteers have no interest in the solutions where they have neither skill set nor interest to bring to bear. In fact, in the Big Data/analytics/AI-infused world, engineers and developers most likely have no clue ow to architect solutions in capacity-constrained environments.

The most predominant programs I see in for-profit companies to “do good” is to have their employees volunteer a (very small) proportion of their time working on “for good projects.” It makes for good publicity, but the truth is, it isn’t sustainable. If you’ve developed a great app to monitor water well efficiency somewhere, what happens when the community needs support and the developer is busy, or gone? All software loses relevance over time.

Another point Hooker makes is the gifting of software to non-profits and NGO’s is a nice gesture, but the most expensive investment in using it is in, just as in any for-profit company, data collection and management and support. As far as I’m concerned, tach companies giving away tech is probably the least productive thing they can do. Hooker is particularly hard on companies on this point:

Equating in-kind donation with “data for good” absolves tech of the responsibility for more meaningful participation


So there has to be some positive here. Jessica Davis writing for InformationWeek reviewed Gartner’s presentation recently of “Data and Analytics for Good” at their recent conference (I haven’t seen the whole report, and it does seem strange that this particular subject is behind the paywall).

This subject area is spearheaded by my friend and colleague, Cindi Howson, who has been researching and writing about the topic for a few years. A few of the examples from the report that Davis includes in the article mirror the deficiencies mentioned above, but there is one that stands out, and I’ve mentioned it before, as an example that sidesteps many of the problems listed above: Thorn is a non-profit technology that was founded five years ago by the actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore to combat child sexual exploitation and trafficking. Their tool, Spotlight, helps law enforcement determine where to best place their resources and prioritize how to build these difficult cases. It has helped identify nearly 6,000 child sex-trafficking victims and more than 6,550 traffickers, and rescue 100 victims of child abuse.

One the things that really gets under my skin is when organizations that are supposed to be doing good in the first place announce their 'for Good' program and look for some recognition. For example, a tax-exempt, non-profit academic medical center submitted an application for an award for using “information technology to save lives.” Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? Another was just fined hundreds of millions of dollars for concealing their research that their herbicide causes cancer, but they applied for a “for good” award” for protecting the world’s food supply.

My take

Thorn is an excellent example where research can be generalized enough to solve a multitude of 'for good' problems that lack IPO-level valuation, but can be applied across many problem areas.

Organizations can donate relevant and sustainable. solutions, not gifts. A one-tine effort by a few employees to work a problem for limited time and then disappear is not an answer. Volunteers, giving away software, hackathons, may make for good publicity, but it’s impact is negligible. Nonetheless, when put to work for social good, technology can ultimately result in a better connected and more caring society.