It seems that all of the talk about big data in the past few months has been around how companies are misusing it, losing it or exploiting it for nefarious reasons. It tends to get mixed views within the press - use it too much and you are intruding, use it too little and you aren't doing your job properly.
However, there is one thing that even the most coldhearted journalist couldn't criticise, using data for the good of society.
One of the key ways in which this is manifested is through the use of data within charities. It is a practice that has increased significantly since the use of data systems has become more simple and less expensive.
One of the most important ways that this manifests itself is through the use of CRM systems such as Salesforce, which is used by Childnet, a London based charity who are dedicated to preventing online child abuse. The primary use of this kind of software is to not only sending emails, but also the collection, analysis and storage of data about their donors. It may seem like something that a corporation is likely to do, but the truth is that unless charities can earn money, they cannot operate. Data allows them to do this without begging for money or resorting to drastic measures, such as the aggressive charity collectors you find on the streets.
Data also has a key part to play in the work being done by charities. Through surprisingly simple data, it becomes possible to find the places where their work will have the most impact. For instance, if you look at the crime statistics of particular neighbourhoods, the type of crimes being committed can then dictate what may be beneficial there. Frequent violence may suggest a gang related charity could operate there effectively whilst a neighbourhood that has significant amounts of drug related arrests could benefit from a rehabilitation element.
With the use of online mediums today, it is also possible for charitable organizations to use more complex data mining techniques, although given the expense and complexities surrounding this kind of work it is not found amongst most small-to-mid size charities. Going back again to Childnet, imagine if they had the opportunity to mine Twitter data to identify online harassment or exploitation of young people? It would allow for a far more comprehensive and far reaching programme.
Charities can also use their data in similar ways to private sector companies and increase efficiencies and productivities. Given that funding for charities across the world has decreased since the financial crisis, the need to use the donated money to make the most change and making it go further is essential. Data can help to identify where there are elements that can be improved to increase the ROI for each element of the charity.
Although the basis of the vast majority of charities is good, there are some who do not always operate properly, as we have seen from the recent Kid Company scandal where the money given to them may have gone missing or a charity could have money stolen by dishonest members of staff. Through a more data led process it would be much simpler to identify when this is happening and take action against those involved. In this case it has closed the charity completely, throwing those who relied on its services into uncertainty.
Data has the opportunity to make a huge difference in communities across the world and as we have seen with some, it is already having a significant impact. As we move into a more data driven future, the skills required become more widespread and prices decrease, data may become the central cog to a successful charity. As it stands at the moment, those who have the opportunity to use it are certainly benefitting.