Charting the ‘Data for Good’ Landscape

Report by Jake Porway at “There is huge potential for data science and AI to play a productive role in advancing social impact. However, the field of “data for good” is not only overshadowed by the public conversations about the risks rampant data misuse can pose to civil society, it is also a fractured and disconnected space. There are a myriad of different interpretations of what it means to “use data for good” or “use AI for good”, which creates duplicate efforts, nonstrategic initiatives, and confusion about what a successfully data-driven social sector could look like. To add to that, funding is scarce for a field that requires expensive tools and skills to do well. These enduring challenges result in work being done at an activity and project level, but do not create a coherent set of building blocks to constitute a strong and healthy field that is capable of solving a new class of systems-level problems.

We are taking one tiny step forward in trying to make a more coherent Data for Good space with a landscape that makes clear what various Data for Good initiatives (and AI for Good initiatives) are trying to achieve, how they do it, and what makes them similar or different from one another. One of the major confusion points in talking about “Data for Good” is that it treats all efforts as similar by the mere fact that they use “data” and seek to do something “good”. This term is so broad as to be practically meaningless; as unhelpful as saying “Wood for Good”. We would laugh at a term as vague as “Wood for Good”, which would lump together activities as different as building houses to burning wood in cook stoves to making paper, combining architecture with carpentry, forestry with fuel. However, we are content to say “Data for Good”, and its related phrases “we need to use our data better” or “we need to be data-driven”, when data is arguably even more general than something like wood.

We are trying to bring clarity to the conversation by going beyond mapping organizations into arbitrary groups, to define the dimensions of what it means to do data for good. By creating an ontology for what Data for Good initiatives seek to achieve, in which sector, and by what means, we can gain a better understanding of the underlying fundamentals of using data for good, as well as creating a landscape of what initiatives are doing.

We hope that this landscape of initiatives will help to bring some more nuance and clarity to the field, as well as identify which initiatives are out there and what purpose they serve. Specifically, we hope this landscape will help:

  • Data for Good field practitioners align on a shared language for the outcomes, activities, and aims of the field.
  • Purpose-driven organizations who are interested in applying data and computing to their missions better understand what they might need and who they might go to to get it.
  • Funders make more strategic decisions about funding in the data/AI space based on activities that align with their interests and the amount of funding already devoted to that area.
  • Organizations with Data for Good initiatives can find one another and collaborate based on similarity of mission and activities.

Below you will find a very preliminary landscape map, along with a description of the different kinds of groups in the Data for Good ecosystem and why you might need to engage with them….(More)”.