Big Data for Social Good

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Local Data Scientists use Data Analytics for Social Good

By: Allison Wainer, Research Intern, Mass Big Data

Data science is typically a capability associated with innovative start-ups and the technology sector; however, data science’s reach extends far beyond these two spheres. In particular, data scientists are beginning to tackle social issues with data analytics and Greater Boston is at the forefront of this intersection of data and social change with numerous universities, meetup groups, and other non-profits seeking to utilize computing, open data, and technology to drive new insights – and hopefully, solutions - into societal problems.

Academia was among the first to embrace big data’s impact on social science, including Bay State institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and the University of Massachusetts system.

Centers at these universities are also driving this research, including:

  • Harvard’s Institute for Applied Computational Science (IACS) founded in 2010 and Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS), which opened in 2005, and the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School launched this past July;
  • MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, & Society (IDSS), which launched earlier this year,  works to apply data science methodologies and analysis to address complex societal challenges in a diverse set of areas such as finance, energy systems, urbanization, social networks, and health.; and
  • Faculty at UMass Amherst’s Center for Data Science, also launched in 2015, focus social impact research projects on the billions of people around the world using social media via a myriad of online networks. This vast trove of fine-grained behavioral data can be used to better understand society, such as predicting consumer behavior, analyzing political trends, forecasting outbreaks of crime, health behaviors, or understanding how disease spreads.

Local companies are also committed to dedicating time to social issues. DrivenData, currently located in Harvard’s iLab, creates data challenges for the global analytics community that attempt to solve social issues on a local and global level. DrivenData recently hosted a competition which asked participants to predict where restaurant health violations would occur over a six-week period. The DrivenData team then compared the predictions of each competitor to the actual health violation data collected in Boston during the same time period. The results of this competition should allow Boston to hire fewer monitoring staff while discovering the same number of health violations in the city. Hopefully, the results of this challenge, the winner of whom lives in the UK, will have long-term implications for public health in Boston and beyond.

An example of a local Meetup group that is using data to drive impact is the Data Science for Social Good Meetup group. The group was founded just a few months ago, in April 2015, yet already has almost 500 members whose goal it is to achieve social impact with data science techniques. The group has met several times recently to work on the Microsoft and USDA Innovation Challenge, which asks participants to integrate multiple U.S. Department of Agriculture datasets into an application that farmers can use to create a sustainable food system in the U.S.

Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed the rise of these influential academic centers and socially-conscious organizations that are using data to drive change. We have seen how data scientists from the global community have had a positive impact on the local community and the reverse, data scientists from Massachusetts working to tackle broader national and global challenges. One could argue that Massachusetts has the most concentrated capability in data science and that this skillset has a positive net impact beyond borders, an attribute particularly important in our globalized society.