Data Donation: A Philanthropic Trend that Could Grow Your Business

Loraine Lawson
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Five Ways to Use Data to Be More Relevant to Customers

Civic technologist Matt Stempeck makes an unusual proposal in a recent Harvard Business Review post (registration required): Businesses, especially in the tech sector, should consider donating data over dollars.

Stempeck draws the idea from the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, a 1999 act that required satellite companies to provide imagery to public agencies in times of crisis. Stempeck points out that under that act, DMC International Imaging has provided valuable imagery on:

  • Flooding in the UK and Zimbabwe
  • The spread of lotus in Algeria
  • Fires in India
  • Snow in South Korea

“The satellite imagery example is an area of obvious societal value, but data philanthropy holds even stronger potential closer to home, where a wide range of private companies could give back in meaningful ways by contributing data to public actors,” writes Stempeck.

He drills down on two areas: Academic research and “responsive cities,” a concept that marries government with technology in a way that’s secure and frightening.

Though Stempeck begins with a focus on philanthropy, he moves on to the business rationale for donating data.

For instance, tech startups can gain (free) media exposure, free labor in the form of academics’ brains putting the data to use, and the ability to hire from the “valuable talent that can emerge from such partnerships.” Oh, and all this free help might just help develop the market and technology, while you reap the benefits. He quotes Hilary Mason, a data scientist at Accel Partners, who takes a very non-philanthropical approach to donating data.

 “Your company is one piece of a complex system, and the more robust that system becomes, the more possibilities there are for you,” Mason tells companies. “Share data, and you make the world a more interesting place in a direction that you’re interested in.”

That’s the kind of message we frequently hear from Silicon Valley these days, but it’s not the same chord that technologists once sang. That’s too bad, because I really believe what attracted many to technology work was both the innate challenges (i.e., how do I make a computer do something new?) and the chance to leverage technology for solving larger society problems (i.e., how can this technology help cancer research?).

As one of Stempeck’s readers, John Urschel, pointed out, “There's a difference between being a good corporate citizen and being a philanthropist.”

Regardless of motivation, I think Stempeck’s most compelling argument is that companies can actually make a greater social impact per dollar by donating data.

The problem is, even if you’re willing to donate data, it sounds like a huge headache. Stempeck outlines eight steps companies must follow to donate data, from obtaining consent releases to identifying which non-profits could benefit from the data. Reading the list, it occurred to me that the data preparation, compliance issues, vetting of agencies and other acts of due diligence might deter even the most philanthropic company.

It’s worth noting that others, though, including the United Nations, are also exploring the idea of leveraging private data for public good. If you’d like to learn more about the effort, check out this page from the United Nations Global Pulse on data sharing. The event is over, but it provides several links to relevant organizations.

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