Can Big Data Help Bring About Social Change?

A look at how collecting and analysing data could mean faster, more efficient routes to change.

Big data has been a crucial player in the business world for years. As the collection, analysis, and interpretation of customer data becomes more and more accessible, even small businesses know they need a strategy on how to analyse and use their customer data – in order to improve their offerings. It lets businesses know important information; what their customers want, how they want to get it, and where they want to buy it. But in the non-profit and social enterprise space? Big data is still catching up. Luckily, social innovators are starting to see the benefit of big data in bringing about social change.

Consider, for example, Palantir, which collects data from “videos, photos, geospatial sources, tweets, satellite imagery, and newspaper articles, to monitor crisis situations such as epidemics, typhoons, and conflict environments. Aid and relief organisations can then use detailed maps and tracking systems to determine where the needed is greatest,” says Social Outcomes. Or Global Pulse, which creates early warnings of social and economic crises, by using real-time data. The list goes on – and its benefits are being discussed worldwide.

The Data Summit, which took place in Dublin on 15 and 16 June, explored the role data can play in changing society. “The power of big data is familiar in the business realm, but at Data Summit we want to extend that conversation into a social context. Whether it’s learning what needs exist in the community or deciding how best to go about meeting those needs, data has a role to play,” says the Minister for Data Protection, Dara Murphy T.D.

Speakers at the Summit included the awardees of THINKTECH, a Tech for Good fund that finds and backs tech-based solutions to Ireland’s critical social issues. One awardee is Aoibheann O’Brien, who co-founded FoodCloud, a smartphone app that facilitates the distribution of excess food from supermarkets to charities, homeless shelters, or family support services. “Data has been the key enabler in our development and growth as a social enterprise. Our smartphone app allows businesses across Ireland to redistribute surplus food into the hands of those who need,” said Aoibheann.

It’s a topic that’s also being explored in the health sector. A recent 22-minute film called Big Data: Biomedicine looks at how big data is having an effect on the future of medicine. “The new hope in the room is not in medicine, but it’s in big data,” Agus, director of the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC, said in the film. “The real revelation in data is we can start to categorise cancer. So instead of just lumping it by where it came from, we’re going to start to personalise how we understand, how we categorise and how we treat disease.

With big data on the lips of the socially conscious globally, organisations are popping up to help facilitate its use. In Illinois, an organisation called Mission Measurement is the leader in social sector data and insights. They connect influential decision makers – the people that back social causes – with research for standardising, measuring and predicting social outcomes of a project. “Each year America’s corporate, government and nonprofit organisations invest $6.3 trillion into programs that aim to address some of the world’s biggest challenges… And yet, key indicators tell us that this massive investment is not paying off to the extent it can or should. In an era where social issues have huge economic consequences, we can no longer afford to guess what works. We need to know,” reads their website.

The need for pioneering solutions – like using big data – to solve social challenges is recognised by local social enterprise, The Philanthropic Collection™, which showcases The CEO SleepOut™ Event, which sees business leaders spend a night outdoors, raising their consciousness and donating funds for Beneficiaries. Pioneering Philanthropist and founder of The Philanthropic Collection™, Ali Gregg, says “We aim to get our most influential leaders to really commit to finding innovative solutions to change. We need to continue to look for new ways to help those who need it most – and being able to analyse data is one way to do that, if it can be crafted correctly.”

Of course, there are still concerns over how we use big data for social impact. “For one, collecting data often relies heavily on technology – and access to technology is often seen to be the privilege of the wealthy, not those who have the most need for change. So, collecting the right data becomes a challenge,” says Stephen Smith, CEO SleepOut™ Participant and Associate Partner: Sustainability and Impact Measurement at IQ Business, “Then there is the issue of being able to accurately analyse the data, which is still a highly-specialised skill, supported by technology.” We also can’t forget the debates around the ethical and responsible collecting of data so that it is not exploited. And, of course, there’s the question of what that means for a person’s privacy. One thing is sure; big data can certainly help to solve social challenges, within the context of regulation and monitoring. It’s a tool that can be vital – provided we properly understand how to use it.

– By The Philanthropic Collection –


The Philanthropic Collection™ is a boutique social enterprise,
where we tailor haute-couture brands for philanthropy.


Our appliqué is made up of global leaders, influencers and forecasters,
all creating conscious capital for humanity.