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Can data science promote a better world?

Can data science promote a better world?

Fifty years ago, no one could have ever foreseen that one day something intangible like data would become more valuable than oil.

These days, more and more businesses use data to make informed decisions and stay competitive in the marketplace.

The race is on for organizations to acquire as much relevant data as possible. However, this “data race” has been rather mostly business-oriented. The singular objective is: make a profit. Thinking out of the box, is it also possible to use data for non-profit initiatives and promote social good?

Data can provide us good insights and ideas which could guide our actions and initiatives in promoting a better world. However, as data around us continues to grow exponentially every single millisecond, how can we ever make sense of it and put it to good use?

Data science is an interdisciplinary field geared toward generating useful insights from large amounts of complex data. By leveraging three areas: information technology, statistics and domain knowledge, data science can uncover insights otherwise impossible to manually extract. Such insights could allow us to have deeper perspectives on our demographics, interactions, communities, economic and socio-political activities.

 

When the extracted information is synthesized, customized and shared across communities, the potential societal impacts could be seen through individual actions, non-profit efforts, government initiatives and corporate social responsibility programs geared towards positive social change.

Data science is already progressing from being an academic and business-focused discipline to one which is socially relevant. Furthermore, there is an increasing awareness among data science professionals who share a concern for social welfare and who hope to use their talents to promote a better world. From its applications in tackling various issues in healthcare, education, unemployment, climate change, disaster relief operations and urban planning, the relationship between social good and data science can be found all around us and often in unexpected ways.

 

The University of Chicago has a summer training program on data mining, machine learning, big data and data science projects with a social impact. Working closely with governments and non-profits, students take on real-world problems in education, health, energy, public safety, transportation, economic development, international development and more.

 

In three months, students learn and apply their data science, analytical and coding skills with mentors coming from the industries and academia. There have been various projects in different sectors initiated by the program, all oriented towards promoting social good.

 

One of the University’s projects is Improving Traffic Safety Through Video Analysis. In Jakarta, Indonesia, nearly 2,000 people die annually because of traffic-related accidents. The city government has invested resources to generate footage from thousands of traffic cameras which could help identify potential short-term and long-term safety risks.

 

The data produced is very valuable but impossible to analyze manually. The project’s main objective is to build a video-processing solution to structure all the traffic data for efficient traffic risk assessment. Once the data is combined with other data sets like collision and weather, public officials will have the necessary insights which could prevent further traffic-related casualties.

 

In the health sector, the project Supporting Proactive Diabetes Screenings to Improve Health Outcomes aims to provide better diagnosis and treatment to patients. Diabetes affects over 45 million adults in the US and can result in additional health complications, mortality and increased healthcare costs. Existing diabetes screening guidelines miss opportunities for treatment and prevention among minority populations.

 

In partnership with AllianceChicago, a national network of 44 community health centers serving the least resourced members of their communities, the project hopes to identify patients at risk of developing diabetes and match the appropriate prevention or treatment plan.

 

There is an ocean of data produced by the operations of the organization including diagnostic codes, lab results and geographic information for as many as two million people over the last 12 years. AllianceChicago plans to integrate the work into its electronic health records system to help clinicians personalize their recommendations to patients and reduce their risk of developing diabetes.

It is comforting to know that some of our best minds and organizations are becoming increasingly concerned not just about academic or economic success, but also about social good. This trend extends into the business realm, with the rise of social enterprises and corporate social responsibility programs, like those carried out where I work at DKSH.

 

However, despite the efforts already made by some, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of government support and legislation, education curriculum update and information dissemination campaigns. These need to be in place to further support and enable data science for social good initiatives. At the end of the day, social good begins with a person’s curiosity about the world and concern to make things better beyond oneself.

 

Start by observing your space, the people in it, then think of ways to encourage positive energy and better conditions for everyone. Data science can indeed provide brilliant ideas and insights on how to make the world a better place, but it is ultimately up to each one of us to put them to good use and start doing something that matters.

Jamill Del Rosario

About the author

Jamill Del Rosario is DKSH’s Director of Group Information Innovation based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is responsible for the Group-wide data and analytics strategy and implementation with a focus on business efficiency and growth through information innovation.