‘Big data’ – using the information for good

Megan Stoffer


Posted in: Corporate Reputation, Speaking Out, Technology & Innovation

‘Big data’ – using the information for good

August 06, 2014

Megan Stoffer looks at the opportunities created in CSR by ‘big data’, and asks where companies’ responsibilities lie when collecting and analyzing information.  


Over 2.5 exabytes of data are created every day. This is equivalent to the data capacity of 57.5 billion iPads. The digital age has created a wealth of information that has led to the age of big data.

Big data, defined as the ability to capture, aggregate, and process large amounts of complex information, continues to evolve and expand. New analytics capabilities have been used to guide marketing practices and have even informed the development of hit shows like House of Cards. But how can CSR professionals use this information as a force for good?

Since not every company has a team of data scientists available to develop these applications, other solutions are needed. Some organizations have recognized the power of collective action, “crowdsourcing” the expertise and creativity of others to develop big data solutions to responsibility challenges.

The city of New Orleans is currently working with civic hackers, neighborhood associations, and corporate partners to evaluate the condition of each land parcel within the city. Since Hurricane Katrina, the city has relied on traditional door to door canvassing to determine the condition of each land parcel, leading to varied data collection methods and an incomplete set of data. The city is now looking to big data to develop a consistent approach to evaluating each property. In a pilot program, camera-equipped cars drive through New Orleans and photograph each home. Crowd-sourced volunteers assess the condition of individual properties, rating them good, fair, or poor. This information can be compared to government data sets to identify vacant property and enforce building codes. Additionally, following natural disasters the city government has the ability to select neighborhoods to deploy resources and insurers can more efficiently assess claims.

Similarly, an analytics startup has brought a unique perspective to home energy consumption. Utility companies often need customers to reduce energy consumption during peak demand to avoid service disruptions. To encourage this behavior, Opower analyzes energy use data from utility customers and sends usage reports to homeowners. These reports compare household energy usage to that of peers, drawing on our competitive human nature to drive reductions in household energy consumption. Through this approach consumers in Opower’s programs saved $234 million on their utility bills in 2013, and took 1.9 gigawatt hours off the grid.

While many organizations partner with others to fill gaps in their own capabilities, companies with a particular expertise in big data collaborate with others to achieve shared goals. For example, Google has partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to identify gas leaks in major cities by deploying methane gas sensors to the Google Maps ‘street view’ cars. Once gas leaks are identified, pipes can be replaced to reduce methane pollution. Similarly, Intel’s Code For Good brings together Intel employees, civic hackers, and non-profits to develop software applications to solve societal problems.

In each example, the organization does not act alone. Collaborating with external partners has led to greater success than could be achieved independently.

Amid the excitement surrounding opportunities for big data applications, concerns remain about the responsible use of data. Many companies, most recently Facebook, have received criticism for their choices in using customers’ personal data. Companies must continue to take into account considerations such as data privacy and confidentiality when collecting and analyzing information.

As our computing capabilities further advance, data will continue to be generated on an exponential scale. Companies must continue to use this information as a tool to strengthen business and society while balancing data privacy concerns. Companies who focus on collaborating with others, whether that be by developing new opportunities to encourage consumer behavior change, leveraging innovative thinking of outside experts, or applying their own skill sets in new ways, may just be the ones to come out ahead.


Megan Stoffer is a senior researcher at Corporate Citizenship