Data philanthropy: The high-tech future of social impact


Modern businesses use data primarily for competitive advantage—to give their customers the best experience, to gain entry into new markets, to become faster, smarter, better. Whether they are gathering data on their customers’ purchasing habits or planning flight patterns, companies are collecting more detailed information than ever.

How this information is collected, stored, and used is a growing area of corporate citizenship focus. As reported in the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship’s 2014 State of Corporate Citizenship, nearly 80 percent of executives consider consumer data protection and privacy to be a top corporate citizenship priority.

However, the societal implications of data far exceed the risk of a breach. Innovative companies are stepping beyond protection and privacy and working with nonprofit partners to conduct “data philanthropy”—or private sector data sharing—to create an even more advanced picture of an issue’s impacts, needs, and behaviors.

Data philanthropy has the potential to improve health outcomes, tell us more about the world, and create value for both society and the businesses that use it. Your company’s data—and the analysts that help you make sense of it—could be as valuable to a community as any grant or volunteer program. For example, corporate data on traffic has been used to help city planners improve infrastructure and reduce congestion, and cell-phone location data was used to understand how human travel affects the spread of malaria.

Besides the obvious benefits to society, businesses recognize data philanthropy as an opportunity to combine their own insights with information that could help them design better products and services. As the United Nations Global Pulse reports, businesses recognize that data philanthropy sparks innovation and serves as a form of business risk mitigation. It also allows them to give back in a way that reflects their unique core competencies while preserving or expanding value for shareholders. A shipping company, for example, might donate its data on truck delivery routes in a developing nation. When that data is combined with data on flooding in the region by a local environmental nonprofit, the company could more easily predict interruptions in deliveries and plan for that contingency.