23 Feb 2022

Data for good

In recent years, the reputation of data science has taken a battering.

Many people were shocked to find out from reporting on the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Netflix films like The Social Dilemma about the ways data is used to target advertising and run political campaigns.

There has been an understandable backlash against organizations that collect and use data, who often seem to prioritize profits for their shareholders over protecting individuals’ privacy. Meanwhile, regulators have responded with investigations into big tech companies, and stricter rules around how data can be used, like GDPR.

But what if we are at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how vital data is to our collective well-being. From understanding lockdown effectiveness based on mobile phone usage, to accurately forecasting daily case numbers with Google searches, innovative uses of data have been a superpower in the fight against coronavirus.

And when it comes to the ways data can benefit society, public health is just the tip of the iceberg. I believe data has a huge role to play in making life better for everyone. That’s the theme of my book Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to Our Digital Future, and the subject I’ll be discussing in my TAI 2022 keynote on 26 April.

To give just one example, the Opportunity Insights group at Harvard University has done ground-breaking work on reducing inequality, under the leadership of the economist Raj Chetty. As well as uncovering the causes of some stark geographic and racial inequalities, data has enabled Opportunity Insights to evaluate past policy ideas. It turns out the moving to a better area during childhood makes a massive difference to your future income – proving the case for policies like “moving to opportunity”.

All of this has only been possible because Chetty and his team have been able to access tax record data for US families going back decades. Tax records are highly sensitive, and even with modern techniques used to “pseudonymize” datasets, there is always a small risk of individuals being re-identified. So, there is a trade-off we have to take seriously. Privacy matters – but so does our ability to make effective public policy that helps society become more equal.

I do hope you will join me at TAI 2022 to hear more stories like this, and to learn some fun and simple ways you can harness data superpowers in your own work. You can book your place today at cih.org.

Written by Sam Gilbert

Sam Gilbert is an affiliated researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, and the author of the book Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to Our Digital Future. He was previously Employee No.1 and Chief Marketing Officer at the fintech company Bought By Many, and held senior roles at Experian and Santander.