Corporate Social Responsibility for a Data Age

Stefaan G. Verhulst in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Proprietary data can help improve and save lives, but fully harnessing its potential will require a cultural transformation in the way companies, governments, and other organizations treat and act on data….

We live, as it is now common to point out, in an era of big data. The proliferation of apps, social media, and e-commerce platforms, as well as sensor-rich consumer devices like mobile phones, wearable devices, commercial cameras, and even cars generate zettabytes of data about the environment and about us.

Yet much of the most valuable data resides with the private sector—for example, in the form of click histories, online purchases, sensor data, and call data records. This limits its potential to benefit the public and to turn data into a social asset. Consider how data held by business could help improve policy interventions (such as better urban planning) or resiliency at a time of climate change, or help design better public services to increase food security.

Data responsibility suggests steps that organizations can take to break down these private barriers and foster so-called data collaboratives, or ways to share their proprietary data for the public good. For the private sector, data responsibility represents a new type of corporate social responsibility for the 21st century.

While Nepal’s Ncell belongs to a relatively small group of corporations that have shared their data, there are a few encouraging signs that the practice is gaining momentum. In Jakarta, for example, Twitter exchanged some of its data with researchers who used it to gather and display real-time information about massive floods. The resulting website,, enabled better flood assessment and management processes. And in Senegal, the Data for Development project has brought together leading cellular operators to share anonymous data to identify patterns that could help improve health, agriculture, urban planning, energy, and national statistics.

Examples like this suggest that proprietary data can help improve and save lives. But to fully harness the potential of data, data holders need to fulfill at least three conditions. I call these the “the three pillars of data responsibility.”…

The difficulty of translating insights into results points to some of the larger social, political, and institutional shifts required to achieve the vision of data responsibility in the 21st century. The move from data shielding to data sharing will require that we make a cultural transformation in the way companies, governments, and other organizations treat and act on data. We must incorporate new levels of pro-activeness, and make often-unfamiliar commitments to transparency and accountability.

By way of conclusion, here are four immediate steps—essential but not exhaustive—we can take to move forward:

  1. Data holders should issue a public commitment to data responsibility so that it becomes the default—an expected, standard behavior within organizations.
  2. Organizations should hire data stewards to determine what and when to share, and how to protect and act on data.
  3. We must develop a data responsibility decision tree to assess the value and risk of corporate data along the data lifecycle.
  4. Above all, we need a data responsibility movement; it is time to demand data responsibility to ensure data improves and safeguards people’s lives…(More)”