Jack Ma, founding chairman of Alibaba Group, has said data rather than oil will be the most valuable resource in the future.
His remark has made “big data” a heated topic in Hong Kong recently.
Big data and data analysis have already been discussed frequently by businesses, government and researchers.
However, it remains unclear how to apply big data in social enterprises and to tackle social issues such as human trafficking, homelessness and education.
Big data means obtaining useful information from mining and analyzing large data sets.
Nearly seven billion people use mobile phones, many of whom use mobile broadband. And developing countries are pushing for universal information technology.
IBM estimates that 2.5 exabytes of data is created every day, which could fill 57 billion Apple iPads with 32 gigabytes of storage each.
This data has been collected from various instruments worldwide or obtained from bond sales, stock trading, bank deposits in the financial system or entered by government employees.
All this data can have a big social impact if used in decision-making.
So far, big data has been mostly used in science, official organizations and multinational corporations.
A small number of social enterprises and non-profit organizations have also been involved in tapping into big data to accelerate social reform.
For example, in Britain, the Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust and Oxford University jointly launched Community Insight, which enables housing providers to instantly access always up-to-date information and data on the communities and neighborhoods in which they work.
Community Insight has integrated raw data available from the local and national government, the police and health services. It has collected statistics from 14 housing providers across Britain.
Big data has become a key element of social innovation, which could involve ordinary citizens in helping create and analyze data. More and more people could contribute good ideas to these open data platforms.
For example, the London city government has allowed public access to raw data issued by various government agencies since 2010, including real-time data on the economy, crime and the transport system.
Human trafficking has become a vast illegal market. The traffickers used mobile, social media, online advertising and other online platforms to commit their crimes.
If this data could be collected, screened and tracked, the fight against human trafficking would be much easier.
Thailand’s National Information Center for the Missing uses crowdsourcing to distribute information on missing people to more than 40,000 member volunteers and taxi call centers.
The centre uses data from the police and social welfare organizations to analyze historical data on human trafficking patterns and distributes these materials to victims’ families and related parties, who may then provide clues for the police to track them down.
As many as 70 percent of the missing people have successfully been found.
Mobile is another key area for big data. Most smartphones are linked with the Global Positioning System.
Medical scientists at Harvard University use mobile data to check on the activities of people in Kenya to prevent the spread of malaria and other infectious diseases.
Social entrepreneur Anne Roos-Weil co-founded Pesident, a service that for a monthly fee of US$1 brings health care to infants in Mali, where one in five children dies before age five, usually from malaria, measles or respiratory diseases.
All these examples show that big data could bring a huge opportunity for driving social reform.
In doing so, various barriers need to be cleared.
Most social enterprises lack professionals and capital to do data mining. And using personal data involves personal privacy and other issues as well.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 7.
Translation by Julie Zhu
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