How to use big data for social good

harvard-big-data

Harvard created a new course that started this semester–Data Science in Education: Big Data, Learning Analytics and the Information Age–with the intention to teach educators and social innovators the basics of big data.

Which is critical, since big data has the ability to improve the provision of public services, enable governments to spend taxpayers’ monies more efficiently, and advance societies forward.

However, before these innovations can happen, most in the field still need this basic question answered:”What exactly is BIG data?”

Most definitions reflect the technological aspect of capturing and gathering a larger volume, velocity, variability, viscosity, veracity, variety, and volatility of data…Simply put, big data is large, diverse, complex data sets generated from sophisticated instruments.

In an article by McKinsey, “analyzing large data sets–so called big data–will become a key basis of competition, underpinning new waves of productivity growth, innovation, and consumer surplus as long as the right policies and enablers are in place.” Research by MGI and McKinsey’s Business Technology Office illustrated: “The United States alone faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with analytical expertise and 1.5 million managers and analysts with the skills to understand and make decisions based on the analysis of big data.”

Enter Harvard, which aims to help answer the question of ‘what is big data,’ and perhaps enable social good in the process. Teaching this class is Harvard’s Charles Lang, who says,

“The course I am teaching [Harvard Ed. students] is a survey course. I want [students] to be able to understand a variety of ways in which people have started to use big data. We are taking a wider view of the field than a lot of courses that focus purely on the technical aspects of data analysis. In Data Science in Ed we are trying to understand both the analytical methodology and the consequences of our analysis for society.”

Personally, I have watched LinkedIn’s Machine Learning: The Basics, with Ron Bekkerman, and have worked hard to grapple with learning predictive analytics techniques. This is why I am pleased that Harvard created a class for social innovators because big data is changing the way all industries, including the social sector, are doing business.

The issues being tackled in the social sector are often more complex than they are in business or science, making the application of big data tools in the nonprofit sector complicated.

“More information [and data] means more insight, but that’s a bit naive. Even if we are as careful as we can be in our analysis, we need to be just as careful in our application of that analysis,” said Lang. We need to be prepared to be critical not only of the limits of our understanding, but the responsibilities that come with that understanding. Am I prepared and able to act on what I learn from data?”

Automation and computer-driven efficiencies are going to drive the advancement of civic services, but my hope is that insights gleaned from information do not lead to false-positive actions in the social sector. This is why I am excited that Harvard created a class and Columbia University developed its Coursera MOOC to enable social innovators to learn how to use big data for social good.

Marquis Cabrera is a social entrepreneur and child welfare advocate. Follow him on Twitter @MarquisCabrera. This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.


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