A Vision for Big Data in the Social Sector

A Vision for Big Data in the Social Sector


By Patrick Davis

Recently, my buddy Brian Weinberg and I had the chance to interview Matt Mahan, CEO of Causes as a part of our on-going GAMECHANGERS series (see full interview below). Causes is arguably the largest online platform for social change in the world. As I’m writing this, Causes boasts 153 million members hailing from 142 countries, who have taken over 1 billion actions collectively. These actions include starting petitions, raising funds, taking pledges, producing videos, telling stories, recruiting activists, and more - all in the name of advancing social causes that are important to communities of people around the world. Check out the Causes homepage and you’ll see stories of folks who have successfully influenced corporate or public policy on a massive scale, and others who have made a significant change in their local community.

During the interview with Matt, I asked him how the Causes team is thinking about leveraging the “big data” they are collecting. With a dataset of over 1 billion actions from 153 million people, I’d imagine they are beginning to derive an understanding of their users’ passions, motivations, interests, and most interestingly, willingness or likelihood to take action. And, with some brilliant data minds at the helm, we might be able to provide users an extra nudge to act in situations where they might otherwise remain passive. Imagine the global effect of a collective force of hundreds of millions of people taking actions that they otherwise would have passed on. Butterfly effect, anyone?

Matt answered this question, first of course, by maintaining that Causes is a careful steward of the data they collect from their users. Then he presented a vision that gave me chills - it presents limitless possibilities. Here’s an excerpt, and with our friends at PunchRock who were watching our interview, we’ve decided to call it the “Bus Stop Analogy”:

Imagine a group of people waiting for the bus. Imagine the bus is late and all the frustrated passengers are on their phones complaining about the lack of support for public transportation in their neighborhood.

If we could connect those people with shared values around the same issue, who live in the same locale, and maybe aren’t even friends, but put them in a collaborative group, we can connect them with one another, let them know they all care about transportation (and maybe environmental issues or safe neighborhoods)… then maybe they’ll want to do something about it… maybe one of them has a contact at city hall, maybe one has run a successful advocacy campaign before, maybe one realizes it’s not about advocacy – it’s about using data better to create better routes for the buses. There is true power in bringing people together, helping them share information, and help them make collective decisions and take action.

Imagine the extensions of this concept - combining powerful technology, mobile accessibility and convenience, and local relationships to affect social change. What if I could tag the causes most important to me, walk around throughout the day and be notified when I’m in proximity to a neighbor who cares about similar causes? Not bad for a conversation starter...I wonder what we might accomplish together.

This has huge implications for social change agendas across all sectors, all geographies, and all systems. The “big data” movement will fundamentally shift our society in the way it understands itself and recognizes value. Where we once relied only the creation of profit in the form of money to determine whether or not something had value, we now have the technology and skills to extract data from digital interactions (like in our bus stop analogy) and unlock potentially unlimited indicators for value. Check out some of these innovations in data for social good at the #ReCodeGood project from Stanford University.

Okay readers: quick creative exercise. How would you combine the power of local, big data, and mobile to create a change in your neighborhood? I wonder if we already have the tools to make your idea happen. Drop something in the comment box and we’ll see!


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photo credit: pixabay.com