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A data revolution for all

NEW YORK — Pick any problem you see around the world: the raging wildfires that are devastating Australia; the opioid epidemic that is ravaging poor communities in the United States; the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. Confronting these problems and others — from poverty and inequality to conservation and climate change — requires the responsible application of data, and the insights drawn from them.

Yet, while there have been great advances in data science in the private sector, many social-sector and civic organizations are lagging behind. With proper support, they can leverage data analytics to make their work go further and faster, ultimately helping more people. By becoming more data-science driven, all organizations can achieve their full potential.

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Fortunately, innovators in the field are already performing some of this work. The volunteer-based organization DataKind, for example, has connected nonprofits with private-sector data scientists to solve issues facing community health workers. Data-driven insights have also been used to help mayors across the United States pursue strategies of inclusive economic growth, and to help government officials in Africa predict the locations and causes of at-risk pregnancies in rural communities. And yet, these efforts represent merely the starting point, not the final destination. There is still so much more work to do.

Transforming the role of data in addressing major social and economic issues is not a job for any one person or organization. We must build on the successes of those who have come before. In 2002, a group of innovative social entrepreneurs, together with antipoverty advocates and the Irish rock musician and philanthropist Bono, launched DATA, a nonprofit committed to alleviating debt, fighting AIDS, and reducing trade inequalities in Africa. In what ultimately became the ONE Campaign, they galvanized support for poverty alleviation by focusing on real-world data, and by advocating evidence-based approaches to development. The coalition behind DATA facilitated the cancellation of $100 billion of debt owed by poor countries, marshaled $50 billion in contributions for health and development aid, and pushed for trade deals that helped millions of vulnerable families.

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But, although data are ubiquitous, and the opportunities offered by the data revolution are even larger, not everyone is poised to gain from it equally. Once again, we need a bold effort to bridge the gap and ensure that the most vulnerable are not left behind.

With that challenge in mind, The Rockefeller Foundation and Mastercard are relaunching DATA.org to serve as a platform for partnerships to expand further the field of data science for social impact, and to ensure that nonprofit and civic organizations are well positioned to take advantage of the data revolution.

By relaunching the platform, we hope to use data to tackle homelessness, improve access to social benefits, and support community health workers worldwide. Those on the front lines of efforts to improve public health, fight poverty, and solve many other problems will have improved access to data scientists who can help them maximize their impact. Most important, this will be done in a way that brings more people and organizations together to effect positive social change, all while adhering to principles of responsible data use.

The data revolution must benefit all. Together, we can make 2020 the year that partnerships began to extend the promise of a data-driven economy to everyone, everywhere. Project Syndicate

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Michael Froman, US trade representative during President Barack Obama’s administration, is vice chair and president of Strategic Growth at Mastercard. Rajiv Shah is president of The Rockefeller Foundation.

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TAGS: data revolution, data science, Michael Froman, Rajiv Shah, World View
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