We live in an era of big data. The proliferation of apps, social media, and e-commerce platforms, as well as sensor-rich consumer devices like mobile phones, wearable devices, commercial cameras, and even cars generate terabytes of data about the environment and about us.
With impressive efficiency gains made in data collection, mining and analysis, technology companies across all realms – from infotainment to finance to logistics – have access to a veritable gold mine of information on their consumers.
With the advantage of such valuable data, companies clearly have the upper hand, fully cognizant of what consumers want, even before consumers realize they want it. Which begs the question of corporate social responsibility.
Data responsibility suggests steps that organizations can take to break down these private barriers and foster so-called data collaboratives, or ways to share their proprietary data for the public good. For the private sector, big data responsibility represents a new type of corporate social responsibility for the 21st century.
Instead of merely leveraging this advantage to maximize profits, companies must consider the long term implications of their actions, the genuine needs of their stakeholders, and the broader concerns of society. Companies would do well to bear in mind issues of sustainability and ethicality, and look beyond their bottom lines to focus on the long road.
3 essentials of big data in CSR
Data holders have a duty to share private data when a clear case exists that it serves the public good. There now exists manifold evidence that data—with appropriate oversight—can help improve lives.
The consequences of failing to protect data are well documented. The most obvious problems occur when data is not properly anonymized or when de-anonymized data leaks into the public domain. But there are also more subtle cases, when ostensibly anonymized data is itself susceptible to de-anonymization, and information released for the public good ends up causing or potentially causing harm.
For the data to really serve the public good, officials and others must create policies and interventions based on the insights they gain from it. Without action, the potential remains just that—mere potential, never translated into concrete results.
This is particularly evident in the struggle against corruption. Around the world, data sets released by governments and others have played a powerful role in increasing transparency. Brazil’s Transparency Portal, for instance, was created in 2004 to increase fiscal transparency of the federal government by sharing budget data. The portal is now one of the country’s primary tools to identify and document corruption, registering an average of 900,000 unique visitors every month.
The move from data shielding to data sharing will require that we make a cultural transformation in the way companies, governments, and other organizations treat and act on data. Innovation must not come at the expense of fairness, transparency and inclusion and regulators must set the tone for responsible and ethical use of big data.