7 Great Ways That Data Can Benefit Society

Credit as -Courtesy of Nilaya Sabnis-L'Oreal Women of Worth-.jpg

Maria Rose Belding (right), is co-founder of the MEANS Database, which uses data to help reduce food waste. (Photo courtesy of Nilaya Sabnis-L'Oreal Women of Worth)


When data is properly accessed and analyzed, it can be used to help our world in a variety of ways.

So much of the debate over the data-driven economy has centered on the issue of privacy and the limits that should be placed on private enterprise related to the generation, access, and use of swelling data flows. 

There’s no doubt that legitimate privacy issues must be respected if big data is to produce the greatest good. In shaping the privacy protections and other policies that will govern the burgeoning data-driven economy, leaders must fully understand the stakes and consequences of policy actions and seek thoughtful balance. The tendency to frame big data debates and the legitimate competing interests at issue in simplistic and extreme caricatures makes for sensational copy, but it does nothing to advance the well-informed public debate needed to produce beneficial laws and norms.

The costs, benefits, and unintended consequences of our frameworks, including those nominally installed to protect privacy, must be soberly understood and weighed against benefits if society’s best interests will be served. In weighing these stakes it too often seems we underappreciate the vital social dividends that big data can produce—yields that poorly conceived or overly broad restrictions on the access and use of data could severely diminish.

Here are seven areas where insight gained from properly accessed data can pay off in huge social benefits:

1) Public health: Understanding and defeating disease and injury

2) Public safety:  Anticipating and preventing crime and the conditions that foster criminal behavior.

3) National security:  Preventing conflict and instability through greater knowledge about its precursors and dynamics. 

4) Development and poverty reduction:  Developing empirically-proven techniques and technologies for fostering human development and poverty reduction.

5) Governance:  Putting knowledge about the dynamics of social and economic problems in the hands of lawmakers, along with options and likely consequences of policy actions or inactions.

6) Education:  Improving the pedagogical arts and sciences to enhance student performance and outcomes.

7) Conservation and environmental protection:  Advancing the ability to protect our natural heritage and sustain life-critical natural systems and resources. 

In all of these cases, data provide critical insights into human actions, practices, behaviors, and impacts. This makes closing the data divide affecting underserved and disadvantaged communities a social imperative.

The Big Data evolution is about arming society with useful, life-improving information and insight—that means the enterprises, NGOs, innovators, families and individuals who have always been the engine of our country’s greatness.

The key is not to let fear and risk-aversion impede the pursuit of our highest aspirations. If we had fallen prey to such forces at earlier inflection points in human history man’s greatest technologies would still be on the drawing board and the pace of human progress would languish. That’s not the kind of future America has ever stood for nor is it the future we should be creating today.