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#IIeX: Data Philanthropy: Giving and Receiving

At the GreenBook Insight Innovation Exchange (#IIeX) in Philadelphia today Ari Popper led a panel discussion on data philanthropy and began with "Data philanthropy can totally change the world. It is a radical idea, and a controversial idea."


By Jeffrey Henning

Ari Popper led a panel discussion on data philanthropy with Todd Cunningham, Robert Foster, Prasanna Lal Das, Snorri H. Gudmundsson, Kyle Nel and Eric Meerkamper. “Data philanthropy can totally change the world. It is a radical idea, and a controversial idea,” began Ari.

Erik of RIWI said, “Data philanthropy is repurposing data for social good.” Pre-empting concerns about confidentiality, Eric said, “1% of data is competitive, 9% your competitors already know, and 90% is noise to you. You might have data that you think is junk that is valuable to others. A lot of initiatives don’t need personal customer information.”

What’s in it for corporations? A chance to collaborate with groups that might not otherwise be accessible. Kyle said, “We came to a realization that we didn’t individually have enough resources or brain power to understand things fully, so we needed partners, we needed to find other people to work with. When you bring other people together you realize that we are working towards the same basic goal of making people’s lives better, in our own different ways.” Kyle said that to propose their data initiative he focused on what it would cost, what would be required, and what Lowes would get as a result. “We found that this is more valuable than going the traditional route. The term data philanthropy needs help because it is not just about giving it is about collaboration. It needs some rebranding.” He also said that there were times that not taking any risks was in itself a risk: data philanthropy is a risk worth taking.

Todd gave the example of when he was at Viacom forming a partnership with government organizations and advocacy groups looking to minimize teen pregnancies. This led to the data-informed creation of shows like “16 and Pregnant” based on what teens and young adults wanted to watch on TV. Teen pregnancy is lower than it has been in years, and Todd would like to think their work was a small part of that success.

Prasanna of the World Bank said, “We opened up everything we know and every instrument we make around the world, with all the data collection. We tried to take the whole notion of data philanthropy not for philanthropy’s sake but to achieve a goal of solving problems for which we need more data. For instance, for poverty measurement, we find things around the world, and try to figure out how we can measure that in real time at a local level.”

Eric said, “Data is valuable when you have it, but there is other data that is more valuable when other people have it. Last week we intercepted 7,000 people in China to map the spread of flu. We know more and more about things: as insight groups we can have a big impact.”

Robert Foster of AMP said, “Data philanthropy is the path that data takes from information to knowledge to wisdom. We need knowledge to make decisions: sitting alone in a vacuum we will not be able to answer these very difficult social questions. These are very complex situations, so a variety of data sets are needed for innovation.” He shared the example of a classmate taking data about the ocean and using it to develop a predictive model of where cholera would break out.

Snorri Gudmundsson of the Iceland Development Agency said, “Open data is big, big issue. The European Union is launching a fund, Horizon 2020, to allocate for the development of open and linked data to increase Europe’s competitiveness. It will allocate 80 billion Euros. There are a lot of potential partnerships for firms on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Eric said, “Taking the angle of the small organization, if data is the new asset class, we are sitting on a gold mine. Data is also a liability when it is very difficult to know what to do with it. Find a cause people believe in and contribute in ways no one else can: come into this to really discover things and to have a really profound impact. Writing in the Wall Street Journal two months ago, Bill Gates said that the one thing he is focusing on is the efficient allocation of resources and, if do this well, we will save the world through data.”

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