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Can big data save the world?

Can big data save the world?

Cape Town, South Africa, is moving towards Day Zero of its water supplies. This terrifying reality is causing decision-makers (and the general public) around the world to question how cities manage water. Currently, no global database of municipal water management information exists.

Earlier this month, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and MIT Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative released Mapping Public Water Management by Harmonizing and Sharing Corporate Water Risk Information, which proposes a method for closing this data gap.

In fact, water risk assessments already exist around the world, collected and reported by multinational companies. WRI and MIT’s new method details how crowdsourcing from these companies can be used to create a comparable, global dataset on local water management.

“Investors of all types and companies around the world are striving to incorporate water risk into their decision making … Too often we see that data quality is a critical barrier,” Jason Jay, MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer and director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, recently told “This project is an innovative way to fill an essential data gap. Ultimately, we hope the data will empower leaders to take actions that ensure sustainable public water management.” (Jay teaches in the MIT Sloan Executive Education course Strategies for Sustainable Business.)

Here in the United States, a similar data gap exists in an entirely different category. Justice. The U.S. criminal justice system as we might imagine it doesn’t exist. There is no all-encompassing way to assess and compare the criminal justice process from arrest to post-conviction. Instead, there are 3,144 counties in the U.S., each with their own criminal justice system. There are no uniform standards for what records they collect or common definitions of terms across those counties.

Measures for Justice (MFJ) was founded in 2011 to change that by collecting and analyzing criminal justice data from counties around the country. The organization launched its own criminal justice data portal last year. More recently, MFJ is one of the catalyzing forces behind ground-breaking legislation in Florida, passed by the state’s legislature just last week, to ensure the collection and public release of criminal justice data that will facilitate opportunities to make smart decisions on policy in the state's 67 counties.

"This means you're going to get pre-trial release decisions on who is being assigned bail," Amy Bach, MFJ’s Executive Director, told Reason, "data on indigence, so you can see if poor people are having different procedural outcomes; data on ethnicity, so the first time you can see how Latinos, who are the largest ethnic group in Florida, are being treated; and data on what type of offenders are being convicted for new offenses or being released, which helps us look at recidivism." (Read more in this recent Wired article.)

How else can data help us change the world? According to the World Economic Forum, it can help us focus on the policies and investments that would have the biggest positive impact on society.

In countries such as Haiti and Bangledesh, data crunching and cost-benefit analysis are being applied to interventions as varied as anti-poverty measures, agricultural tariffs, child immunization, legal aid reform, e-government solutions, and rebuilding the armed forces. By focusing on data—and not politics—it’s possible find the sensible policies that have the greatest ROI.

The United Nations Migration Agency is also turning to big data to help deal with emergencies in the midst sprawling refugee camps and massively chaotic migratory routes. It developed an online platform to receive information out in the field and an app that can export live data and infographics to be shared with other agencies.

These organizations and many others around the world are proving that data is more than big business. It might just change the world.


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