And how can it be used in the public sector?

By Vimla Appadoo

Hopefully you’ve heard of Tech4Good, and if you’re reading this, chances are you believe in the power of social enterprises. It’s also likely that you’re a convert to embracing the value that for profit and purpose businesses can bring, not only to the economy, but society as a whole.

If Tech4Good lays the foundation for building businesses that use technology to offer social value, then data for good adds a layer of purpose to services and products to ensure that they are continually improving.

Why data matters

Personal data is our most valuable commodity today. It’s the digital footprint we leave behind from the things we click, to the things we type and most importantly, our preferences, personal details and more. We exchange our personal data to receive services, often ones promoted as “free”, ranging from social media to streaming and any website that asks to use our cookies. The reality is, they aren’t free. Access comes at the “low, low cost” of our data which is bought, sold and used as leverage.

We’ve reached a time when data is valuable and accessible to everyone. No longer is it only a commodity reserved for multinational corporate conglomerates. Infinite amounts of data exists, giving all entities the opportunity to build understandings, predict future trends and more. It’s collected, shared and used to inspire progress across sectors and across disciplines.

And that’s just in the private sector. Imagine if the same thinking was applied in the public sector.

What is “data for good”?

As consumers, we’re aware that our data is being collected, and legal frameworks like GDPR are helping individuals maintain personal security. But, we’ve yet to see the biggest potential achievement to improve lives through data. If data is our most valuable commodity, being used to inform the business strategies of companies worldwide, then data for good is using that same information with the purpose of creating services that benefit people.

Data for good is just that: collecting data in a safe, secure and transparent way to help people make better, informed decisions. For example, consider the information you provide to health apps which could collect data to improve future diagnosis, care and prevention. For businesses, governments and councils, data for good means making truly data-led decisions to improve the outcomes and impact for their own citizens; us.

We already collect data to build smarter city infrastructure, like better management of traffic signals, and in building preventative frameworks to address homelessness. Local authorities such as Doncaster, Kent, North Lanarkshire and Walthamstow Council have started to put data for good into practice. They’re each using existing data to help their residents make better decisions and improve the services that they offer to citizens.

I worked as a service designer at FutureGov, where we actively seek data. We’ve found that many councils and governments don’t realise the extent of the data they already have, and how valuable that information and their knowledge is. One experience where we used data for good was during a project alongside Suffolk and Essex County Councils. We needed to understand the needs of residents in rural areas to access transport and understand the opportunities available. By speaking with users, third-party transport operators and the council, we were able to extract valuable data to highlight unmet patterns of demand. With this knowledge, the councils were able to develop and trial a digitally bookable community bus service.

Being conscious of data

Data is only as good as the way it’s collected and used. When we’re using data, we need to be conscious of the bias that can unintentionally appear when building algorithms that can exclude entire groups of people from the data set. We have a responsibility to be conscious of building diversity into code, to testing and iterating new services that are using data to try and prevent bias in the decisions that are being made.

We need to be conscious of the data that is being collected, how it is being used and most importantly, what this means for the person who is sharing their data with us.

How to make it happen: open data

Open data is essential to creating the future of data for good. Open APIs, algorithms and code should be used to ensure information is not owned by any single party, can be used by anyone and remains in the public domain. The public sector has a responsibility to show how data can be used ethically to make better decisions, improve services and change people’s lives. The first step is through the use of open data sets.

A huge part of this conundrum lies with transparent data, or lack thereof, and lack of trust. Being clear about the data we collect and how it is used supports the feeling of trust between collector and provider. Trust and transparency are the building blocks to encouraging people to provide their data for the greater good.

Data is already being used to make decisions and to influence the ways we shop, navigate a city and more. It’s valuable information touching every industry, sector and person.

Data for good is the future. It’s a powerful tool that the public sector in particular can use to change the way we view and use data to make data-led decisions that improve outcomes for people worldwide. It could change the way we access healthcare, receive support and understand the environment around us.