Using data for good, not evil

This is a guest blog post by Cindi Howson, Chief Data Strategy Officer, ThoughtSpot.

Nothing illustrates the double-edged nature of data use more vividly than the recent general election in the UK. On the ‘data for good’ edge, pro-democracy organisations successfully reached youth, disabled people, and other disenfranchised groups to raise voter turnout. The Electoral Reform Society logged 3.1 million new voter registrations since the last general election in 2017, 67% of which were by people aged 34 and under.

But there’s way too much for my liking on the ‘data for bad’ edge. Here we witness organisations abusing data to blast misinformation through unregulated social media channels in order to swing public opinion. This reckless, cynical activity is eroding democracy, dividing societies and undermining ‘data for good’ initiatives.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so equally inspired and terrified in my 25-year career in data and analytics. Though I get discouraged, ultimately I believe the forces of good will prevail. As more scams are exposed, people get more data savvy and literate. Legal and regulatory frameworks will adapt, but more importantly, existing laws will become more effectively enforced. This ‘Wild West’ period can’t go on forever.

In the meantime, I challenge all CEOs, CDOs, and analytics leaders to work on ‘Data for Good’ initiatives and use data responsibly for commercial gain. While this may seem easy in theory, I often get questions on how to put it into practice. Here are five steps to get started:

  1. Identify a cause that matters to you personally. Then make it professional. For example, ThoughSpot’s co-founder and chairman Ajeet Singh, for family reasons, felt a personal connection to the cause of improving cancer outcomes. I personally care about data to improve education and eliminate homelessness, seeds of empathy sown during a difficult upbringing. Whatever you do, don’t embark on data for good for marketing purposes. That’s the first misstep on a slippery slope to data for evil.
  2. Investigate how data and analytics can drive the cause forward. Research projects and organisations in your interest area and how they can be served by data. In the UK, groups like Data Orchard and DataKind have local chapters to promote the use of data for social good, and the Bloomberg Data for Good Exchange just held its first summit in London.
  3. Establish what’s needed most: it could be data, money, software or expertise. Many organisations urgently need access to data held in the private sector. That’s why some banks and telecommunications companies, for example, are now sharing anonymised data to support smart city projects.
  4. Team up with colleagues and other like-minded companies in your area of interest. Being part of a community can be motivational. For example, technology providers, food producers and retailers have joined forces to support FareShare, which fights hunger and food waste in the UK.
  5. Set a vision and plan for sustainable action. One-off actions provide some benefit. However the longer you invest in a cause over time, the more you learn about its unique challenges so you can make a lasting difference.

Data for good programmes can have a profound impact on society and their own company’s culture. It can be hard not to get thrown off course by bad news stories.

Fortunately, there at least as many good, albeit less prominent, examples out there. I was heartened, for example, when investment firm BlackRock’s CEO urged fellow CEOs to consider their contributions to society, not just short-term profit gains. I encourage anyone working in data to do the same and make a plan to help shape society for the better.

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