Data is still “sexy”. And I don’t see any reason why that would change. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the statistics. A quick search for data jobs on LinkedIn yields over 61,000 results and Google Trends continues to show strong growth for Data Science and Big Data. The Insight Data Science Fellows Program continues to receive over 500 applicants for each class of 30 students, with a 100% placement rate in data careers afterwards.
At the same time, we’re having some very serious debates about the acceptable use of data. For example, when is it OK to collect data or metadata (which traces the patterns of the information gathered) about the citizens of a country? And if a person is identified by mistake, whether for something as trivial as a parking offence or as serious as a no-fly list, how do you challenge an algorithm and what’s the process for fixing the error? We’re also struggling to keep some of our most sensitive data, both at a personal and government level, secure.
Data is coming under a new level of scrutiny. That’s a good thing, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the broader public debates what is acceptable. For me personally, I like to focus on some of the incredible things people are doing with data to make the world a better place.
One of my favourite groups using data for good is Crisis Text Line (CTL), which sends support text messages to teenagers in distress. The organization was started by Nancy Lublin, a Young Global Leader, and inspired by the heart-breaking responses from teenagers to texting campaigns by DoSomething.org, America’s largest non-profit for young people. As a separate entity, CTL has a single goal, which is to help teenagers through the technology medium they are most comfortable with: text messaging. Once a teenager texts in, trained counsellors reply to everything from suicide attempts, to self-harm, to bullying.
Combining this new approach with data science, CTL built their entire system from the ground up with data in mind. This includes everything from actionable dashboards to data products that help make counsellors both more efficient and effective. For example, predicting when texting volume will be high, developing queues for which counsellors are most effective, and a unique interface for counsellors to work with multiple teenagers simultaneously. These approaches have enabled them to deliver more than a million text messages in the short time the service has been running. The impact and letters from parents of the teens who have received help from the service is guaranteed to make you cry.
Another example of great use of data is DataKind. Led by Jake Porway and Craig Barowsky, it rallies data scientists from disparate places to help non-profits with some of their most pressing data challenges. They do this through a combination of “data dives” (think of these as data hackathons, open to everyone around the world) and their data corps team – in their words, “an elite group of data scientists dedicated to using data in the service of humanity.” These leading experts spend three to six months working pro bono. Their projects include getting better data about food pricing and consumption to help inform monetary policy and thwart a food crisis in Kenya, and figuring out which trees New York State should prune to stop them causing damage in a storm.
This kind of thing isn’t just restricted to the non-profit space. Companies like Jawbone (founded by another Young Global Leader, Hosain Rahman) are using data in innovative ways to help improve your health. Their data has already yielded interesting trends on sleeping patterns. And this is just the beginning, as they start to apply their insights to help personalize advice to improve your health.
Governments are getting involved, too. Code for America has had a massive impact in bringing modern technological and data science approaches to critical services provided at the city level. Each year, data specialists are paired up with a city in need. Their work really shows the merits of their approaches and the impact a little data science can have. For example, in San Francisco the team has focused on helping those needing food assistance. Their approach doesn’t just focus on bureaucratic data, but on making sure people get the help they need. At the federal level, Todd Park has been leading a similar change through the Presidential Innovation Fellows. Now on their third set of fellows, the results have been fantastic.
These data projects give me confidence that the data revolution has only just started. The people who are driving these programmes do so because they’re passionate about both data and the problems they want to solve. In the few short years these programmes and projects have been active, we’ve seen remarkable results, and I expect the impact will continue to increase. The next couple of years are going to be a great test for how comfortable we want to be with data. It is essential that we define acceptable use of data and find ways to safeguard our personal information. In doing so, we must be careful that we don’t cut off the innovation and the opportunity for data to improve lives for those who need it most.
Full disclosure, I spend as much free time I can helping DataKind, Data Insight Fellows, Code For America, DoSomething.org, and CrisisTextLine as I can — and I’m damn proud of it.
Author: DJ Patil is a data scientist and Young Global Leader.
Image: People look at their mobile phones in Barcelona, February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Albert Gea