The Two Faces of Data

Published by Digital Impact (formerly Markets For Good) Sep 29, 2014

The need for good data ethics underscores the value of philanthropy as a bridge between civil society and private innovation. Big data is predictive, not intuitive. A system based on stats alone can’t invest in the people it can’t see.


As public-private relations evolve and data sharing initiatives proliferate, philanthropy should remain vigilant about the perils of sharing too much too fast, remembering our sacred bond with civil society. As the coming wave of urban growth transforms the way we live and interact, sound ethics in big data will be an even bigger priority, underscoring the value of philanthropy as a bridge between people and private innovation.

When the fictional character Harvey Dent, district attorney of Batman’s Gotham City says, “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” he’s referring to absolute power and the corruption of virtue. Dent eventually falls prey to the schism between inherent goodness and his humanity’s more unsavory side — a once idealistic public servant now obsessed with absolutes. Today we’re seeing a similar dynamic in data and the big data movement.

Big Data represents a paradigm shift in how we structure and move information and ourselves; as it becomes more pervasive in society it will increasingly define our collective and individual identities. Data will allow us to be more productive and cooperative, to make our cities more connected and resilient; our future depends on the data we produce today. But as the Gates Foundation’s Darin McKeever says, data is not evidence.

Data may soon be an asset the likes of which the social sector has never seen. But data is wild, some say wicked. Giving more data won’t make us wiser and sacrificing more for data’s sake won’t make us safer. Take apps, for example. App developers who overlook the social forces that inspire them may not consider the implications for society once their creations adapt and mature. Apps meant to increase safety and convenience for urban populations may in fact encourage social bias. Tech writer Joshua Kopstein says this could result in “an increasing number of systems that impose values of their own rather than embrace the ethical standards that society at large tends to recognize.”

This assumes an ethical disconnect, which makes the social sector an asset to the big data enterprise. As a bridge between civil society, policy, and private innovation, the social sector not only brings a deep understanding of community, but also a heightened ethical awareness — one necessary to avoid what Lucy Bernholz calls “policy train wrecks between new technological possibilities and established forms of governance, privacy, and security.”

The future of civil society depends on the architecture we build for data. By 2050 two thirds of the global population will live in cities. This mass migration will put an unprecedented amount of stress on already fragile infrastructures, especially in developing countries where the brunt of this migration will occur. Data will play a central role in making our cities more resilient over time as we transition into this new urban era. Private and public sectors will become increasingly intertwined as innovations in health care, public transportation, mixed-income housing and other initiatives expand and improve.

Private entities already make their data publicly available through the UN GlobalPulse data philanthropy initiative. Robert Kirkpatrick echoes the popular notion that only private expertise can guide the public sector’s handling of big data, but admits the tech behind the analysis is so new that it presents a challenge, even for private innovation. What does this mean for the social sector as it shapes its own initiatives?

What the social sector might offer here is ethical guidance. As a classification system big data is predictive, not intuitive. A system based on stats alone can’t possibly invest in the desires of individuals it chooses not to see. Such a system would seem oblivious, if not hostile, to those already on the margins of society. This is a problem in a time of economic uncertainty and encroaching climate change, when ethical corners will likely be cut in order to compensate for lost time and resources.

Philanthropy should consider a more comprehensive code of data ethics. We must honor our sacred pact with civil society as we enter this golden age of philanthropy data, ensuring that our initiatives remain socially inclusive, as well as sustainable.

Read on Digital Impact