Social good, meet data science

Researcher, IBM

Big data and analytics can help companies manage their industrial assets, help nations identify threats to national security, help individuals maintain their vehicles and help miners decide where to dig for metals and other natural resources—and that’s just for starters. But can data also change the world for the better? I think it can.

Learn how data creates new ways of living

How our society uses data speaks volumes about us, but data can do more than merely shine a light on what already is. Indeed, using data, we can find new ways to live.

Data, and facts drawn from that data, can help drive policy decisions that create social good in an age of ubiquitous digital information. Indeed, in our world, nearly everything is captured as digital data in whole or in part, whether mobile phone calls, mouse clicks, satellite imagery, health records, seismograms or music videos. Accordingly, some industries and certain sectors have stepped forward to take advantage of big data in all its promise, and these industries are already reaping the benefits offered by descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics., in the social work and public sectors, in which people strive to address the most important problems that face humanity even as they uphold a tradition steeped in open data and fact-based action, advanced analytics has yet to take a firm hold. Enter, then, a new movement in computing: data science for social good. No stranger to this movement myself, I have helped join DataKind in connecting mission-driven organizations and professional data scientists whose pro bono work can drive a variety of predictive analytics projects, including the following:

  • Analyze satellite imagery to help estimate the relative poverty of Kenyan villages, providing data essential to the unconditional cash transfer campaigns carried out by nongovernmental organization (NGO) GiveDirectly.
  • Analyze digital application form data to help forecast the repayment behavior of poor rural customers of pay-as-you-go solar power provider Simpa Networks, a leading social enterprise in India.

Volunteerism is at the core of this new movement. Indeed, although each of us may expect to work an estimated 80,000 hours during our career, we also have many opportunities to devote our time—perhaps even some of those hours—to solving the problems that face our world.

Join IBM in making a difference

Do you think of IBM when you think of corporate citizenship? I certainly do: After all, my manager, IBM fellow Saška Mojsilović, spearheaded our group’s participation in the global response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in west Africa—and we used data science to make it happen. Indeed, IBM’s focus on corporate citizenship drives our company to lend its strength to addressing a variety of societal problems, including by acting as part of Impact 2030, a consortium of private companies dedicated to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals of combating poverty, hunger, inequality, injustice, ill health, carbon emissions and many other causes of human suffering.

But that’s only part of how IBM is using data to create social good. In 2016, IBM will be offering a new Social Good Fellowship program with an eye to helping graduate students and postdoctoral scholars develop data science solutions that benefit humanity even as they are mentored by leading IBM research scientists and engineers. This program, which Saška and I will direct together, will help IBM collaborate with NGOs, social enterprises and government agencies to make a difference for good in our world—not least by shaping a new generation of data scientists.

Through this corporate fellowship program, IBM will join other initiatives that aim to do data science for social good, among them DrivenData, DataKind, Bayes Impact, the Bloomberg Data for Good Exchange and the University of Chicago Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship. Whether as a fellowship applicant, a partner organization or a fellow, apply to help IBM make a difference.