A case for Data Science with a social impact

published by Rodrigo Barros - 22 May, 2019

By now, there is no question about the importance, power and value of data. Companies have already figured out how to make it profitable, be it through selling new products and services or simply through optimizing internal processes and saving money. However, there is not a lot of talk about the social impact of data and how data can directly help those in desperate need and society as a whole.

Call it the new oil or the new gold, data is everywhere and is generated all the time. When asked about it, we can all come up with commercial examples of data products: the recommendation systems, the search engines, the credit risk algorithms. And these are all useful, no question about it — they solve a problem and they improve people’s lives in some way.

On the other hand, not a lot of thought (much less work) has been put on using these same algorithms to create non-commercial social impact by helping more underprivileged groups of people. The truth is these algorithms that companies use to boost profits can also be used by social good organizations — after all, being data-driven isn’t limited to companies. In fact, data science can also help governments, non-profits and social good organizations run their operations more efficiently.

So why is there still not a lot of work done here? Well, it’s the usual reason — it doesn’t make money.

Most organizations that work in any kind of social change field don’t have the budget or staff to take full advantage of this data revolution. More than that, they don’t even understand how data can help them — and I don’t blame them, they already have their plates more than full with their day-to-day operations (you know, saving the world and stuff). And at the end of the day, these organizations survive mostly out of volunteer work that is not scalable in any way, shape or form. But what if we could show these organizations just how valuable data can be for them too? What if we could introduce scalability in their work using data?

Besides this, it is also not clear for data science professionals how they can help.

Most data scientists don’t realize just how valuable their skills can be and how impactful their work can become if their expertise was channeled in a different way than what they’re already doing on their day job. But truth be told, there are a lot of areas where data science can have a direct social impact. From poverty alleviation, advocating for child well-being and battling hunger to healthcare access, improving education and environmental causes, data science has the potential to truly move the needle on seemingly impregnable issues. However, this is only possible if there is a strong cooperation between data scientists and social sector experts.

So, what to do now?

Disappointed about the fact that the number of organizations tackling this issue is less than a handful worldwide yet inspired by this societal need, me and a group of amazing people who share the same vision about data science and social impact got together and created Data Science for Social Good Portugal. We want to help social good organizations through the whole data processing pipeline — from data collection to predictive modelling — according to what they truly need.

To make things easier and faster, we partnered with DSSG Chicago (and borrowed the name along the way). They already have a bunch of social good projects on their portfolio — such as this one, about using data science to improve police interactions in several Police Departments in the US. DataKind is another organization that’s been doing this for quite some time now (and who were nice enough to meet with us, share some of their practical knowledge and give hints on how to kick-start this project — thanks for that, guys!). One project they did was regarding homelessness in the UK and how data about vulnerable populations can decrease the prevalence of this problem.

Hopefully these two examples will give you a grasp on the potential of using data science for social good and will motivate you to look further on what you can do.

Wrapping up…

If you want to learn more about DSSG Portugal and how we are changing society using the power of data (and our pro-bono time), check out our LinkedIn and follow us on Medium. This is where we’ll be sharing news and real-life stories about our social good projects — it’s still a bit of a ghost town but hang around, I promise it’s growing

SIDE NOTE: we’ll be hosting two presentation meetups in Portugal (one in Porto and another in Lisbon) so feel free to join us. There’s free food!

Originally posted on medium by the same author.