Small Data for Big Impact

Liz Luckett at the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “As an investor in data-driven companies, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather—a baker, a small business owner, and, I now realize, a pioneering data scientist. Without much more than pencil, paper, and extraordinarily deep knowledge of his customers in Washington Heights, Manhattan, he bought, sold, and managed inventory while also managing risk. His community was poor, but his business prospered. This was not because of what we celebrate today as the power and predictive promise of big data, but rather because of what I call small data: nuanced market insights that come through regular and trusted interactions.

Big data takes into account volumes of information from largely electronic sources—such as credit cards, pay stubs, test scores—and segments people into groups. As a result, people participating in the formalized economy benefit from big data. But people who are paid in cash and have no recognized accolades, such as higher education, are left out. Small data captures those insights to address this market failure. My grandfather, for example, had critical customer information he carefully gathered over the years: who could pay now, who needed a few days more, and which tabs to close. If he had access to a big data algorithm, it likely would have told him all his clients were unlikely to repay him, based on the fact that they were low income (vs. high income) and low education level (vs. college degree). Today, I worry that in our enthusiasm for big data and aggregated predictions, we often lose the critical insights we can gain from small data, because we don’t collect it. In the process, we are missing vital opportunities to both make money and create economic empowerment.

We won’t solve this problem of big data by returning to my grandfather’s shop floor. What we need is more and better data—a small data movement to supply vital missing links in marketplaces and supply chains the world over. What are the proxies that allow large companies to discern whom among the low income are good customers in the absence of a shopkeeper? At The Social Entrepreneurs’ Fund (TSEF), we are profitably investing in a new breed of data company: enterprises that are intentionally and responsibly serving low-income communities, and generating new and unique insights about the behavior of individuals in the process. The value of the small data they collect is becoming increasingly useful to other partners, including corporations who are willing to pay for it. It is a kind of dual market opportunity that for the first time makes it economically advantageous for these companies to reach the poor. We are betting on small data to transform opportunities and quality of life for the underserved, tap into markets that were once seen as too risky or too costly to reach, and earn significant returns for investors….(More)”.