How the Data That Internet Companies Collect Can Be Used for the Public Good

Stefaan G. Verhulst and Andrew Young at Harvard Business Review: “…In particular, the vast streams of data generated through social media platforms, when analyzed responsibly, can offer insights into societal patterns and behaviors. These types of behaviors are hard to generate with existing social science methods. All this information poses its own problems, of complexity and noise, of risks to privacy and security, but it also represents tremendous potential for mobilizing new forms of intelligence.

In a recent report, we examine ways to harness this potential while limiting and addressing the challenges. Developed in collaboration with Facebook, the report seeks to understand how public and private organizations can join forces to use social media data — through data collaboratives — to mitigate and perhaps solve some our most intractable policy dilemmas.

Data Collaboratives: Public-Private Partnerships for Our Data Age 

For all of data’s potential to address public challenges, most data generated today is collected by the private sector. Typically ensconced in corporate databases, and tightly held in order to maintain competitive advantage, this data contains tremendous possible insights and avenues for policy innovation. But because the analytical expertise brought to bear on it is narrow, and limited by private ownership and access restrictions, its vast potential often goes untapped.

Data collaboratives offer a way around this limitation. They represent an emerging public-private partnership model, in which participants from different areas , including the private sector, government, and civil society , can come together to exchange data and pool analytical expertise in order to create new public value. While still an emerging practice, examples of such partnerships now exist around the world, across sectors and public policy domains….

Professionalizing the Responsible Use of Private Data for Public Good

For all its promise, the practice of data collaboratives remains ad hoc and limited. In part, this is a result of the lack of a well-defined, professionalized concept of data stewardship within corporations. Today, each attempt to establish a cross-sector partnership built on the analysis of social media data requires significant and time-consuming efforts, and businesses rarely have personnel tasked with undertaking such efforts and making relevant decisions.

As a consequence, the process of establishing data collaboratives and leveraging privately held data for evidence-based policy making and service delivery is onerous, generally one-off, not informed by best practices or any shared knowledge base, and prone to dissolution when the champions involved move on to other functions.

By establishing data stewardship as a corporate function, recognized within corporations as a valued responsibility, and by creating the methods and tools needed for responsible data-sharing, the practice of data collaboratives can become regularized, predictable, and de-risked.

If early efforts toward this end — from initiatives such as Facebook’s Data for Good efforts in the social media space and MasterCard’s Data Philanthropy approach around finance data — are meaningfully scaled and expanded, data stewards across the private sector can act as change agents responsible for determining what data to share and when, how to protect data, and how to act on insights gathered from the data.

Still, many companies (and others) continue to balk at the prospect of sharing “their” data, which is an understandable response given the reflex to guard corporate interests. But our research has indicated that many benefits can accrue not only to data recipients but also to those who share it. Data collaboration is not a zero-sum game.

With support from the Hewlett Foundation, we are embarking on a two-year project toward professionalizing data stewardship (and the use of data collaboratives) and establishing well-defined data responsibility approaches. We invite others to join us in working to transform this practice into a widespread, impactful means of leveraging private-sector assets, including social media data, to create positive public-sector outcomes around the world….(More)”.