Algorithms for altruism: How data is being used for good

As a recruiter specialised in the data science field, I’ve spent the past year understanding the outcomes organisations are trying to achieve with data science. We all know the power of data, but I’ve recently been thinking about its role in areas beyond sales and marketing. Specifically, how is data science being used to tackle problems that really matter? 


Sure, there is no denying that Google would not be what it is today without the use of data science algorithms. I am also a frequent user of Siri and love that Facebook’s face recognition algorithm will give me pretty accurate suggestions to tag my friends.


I also appreciate the importance of big data for organisations and why it’s necessary for all business decisions to be data driven. But what projects with genuine social impact are being carried out and how many real-world problems are being tackled using data mining, machine learning, big data and data science methods?


Intel for impact


It’s fantastic to see the increasing numbers of data scientists sharing a concern for social welfare and partnering with not-for-profits to tackle data heavy high impact problems.


Thorn, a not-for-profit founded by Ashton Kutcher, has developed a piece of tech aiming to fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children via the dark web. It is used across all states in America. The software is called Spotlight and it makes tracking down traffickers easier and faster for law enforcement officials. Using data, they have developed a software that can analyse and track data to build stronger cases against perpetrators and locate victims. Spotlight uses NLP and machine learning to sift through daily ads who could potentially involve minors.


The Data for Good movement in North America aims to encourage the use of data to solve humanitarian issues. DataKind is a not-for-profit that connects data scientists with groups seeking pro-bono help and has presence in the US, UK, India and Singapore. Here in Australia we have the Minerva Collective (a Data Republic affiliate), dedicated to using data to drive social change.


At a Sydney meetup this year, Michael Allwright from The Minerva Collective presented on ‘using data for good vs data for bad’. I was particularly interested to hear how data is being used to help combat domestic violence towards women. For the past few years DV Connect, a Queensland-based charity, has been at the forefront of this. With access to data around location and frequency of incidents, combined with information on previous counselling support provided to victims, analysts can present insights to the charity that can ultimately be used to improve the lives of thousands of women.


Data science is also playing a huge role in real-time tracking during global crises and how relief efforts can be optimised. The BI & visualisation software company Qlik has been recognised as a top 10 innovative company in social good. Their corporate social responsibility program enables collaboration with not-for-profits, helping them to help leverage the power of data for social causes. Two examples of this include facilitating relief efforts during the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 and helping to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa.


The mobile movement


The advancement in technology can enable us to understand people in a way that has never been done before. I think it’s fair to say we are all getting more and more obsessed with our phones. One benefit (and there are a lot of negatives!) from this is that aggregated mobile network data, which is then anonymised, can be made available for ‘socially good’ research purposes. For example, some of the key global telco players are passing on huge data sets to data scientists and academic researchers enabling them to track health epidemics.


Final thought


We have already seen universities in the US start to introduce programs designed to train data scientists on problems centred on social matters. I’m sure it won’t be long until we see this happening here in Australia too.


Progress is being made, but more can still be done to educate people on the value of big data and how it can be used to transform the social sector.