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Weekly Trend: How Big Data Offers Potential Solutions to Social Problems

When private sector companies use big data, they are seeking a solution to a straightforward problem; expanding market base. When researchers use large data sets, they are solving technical questions. But solving social problems such as homelessness and human trafficking are much more complex, with many layers of regulation and many more stakeholders, including governments, non-profits, and citizens themselves. In these cases, technology and resources are limited, although the opportunity to impact society is great.

Leveraging Data for Efficiency

While data that keeps track of social problems is prevalent, the ability of both governments and advocacy organizations to manage it is lacking. The promise of streamlined data is that it can help deliver services to those who need it most, at the time when they need it, resulting in the most efficient use of scarce resources. As Julia Burkhead, deputy director of the Community Technology Alliance explains in Telephonica, “Data about people is complicated, so it takes a lot of skill to be able to make strategic decisions with it.”

Her group’s work to analyze causes of homelessness is an example of how non-governmental organizations can leverage existing government data to help target the populations that would benefit most from additional services.

Optimizing Processes

Similarly,, the non-profit side of data firm, has worked with Brooklyn-based housing non-profit CAMBA to process roughly 5,000 new eviction cases per month. NextCity reports that, by geo-coding according to address, was able to cut the time of this process down from several days to a few hours.

The group, who has also worked on problems such as prescription drug abuse, prostitution, and tracking casualties in Syria, looks for opportunities where their expertise can be most valuable. Says SumAll Foundation CEO Stefan Heeke in Forbes, “Our sweet-spot are data-rich, high impact projects related to an issue of interest where we partner with an organization with access to operational data.”

Joining Streams

Another layer of complexity is added when primary data do not come from government sources. The Stanford Social Innovation Review showcases the issue of how data from human trafficking can be unstructured, difficult to collect, and possibly unreliable since it is sourced from various technology, including mobile phones, social media, online classifieds, and other internet platforms.

Additionally, they report, agencies working in this field often compete for resources, and do not release data to other groups in the field. Their example of hotline-based agency The Polaris Project combining with two other international anti-trafficking agencies under a 2012 Google Giving award to form the Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network offers hope, and an example of how different groups in the same field can work together.

New Approaches Needed

A 2012 report on the role of big data in government from TechAmerica makes the point that successful big data initiatives seem to start not with a discussion about technology, but rather with a burning business or mission requirement that government leaders are unable to address with traditional approaches. Social problems such as homelessness and human trafficking are entrenched, ongoing; traditional approaches have alleviated some of their strain, but solutions using big data have the potential to make a massive difference.

Emily Brown

Emily works in urban planning, helping cities to become more competitive. She was named as one of 40 under 40 economic developers, and has taken part in a successful Kickstarter…