Big Data + Social Good
The Gates Foundation recently hosted a webcast on digital strategy for nonprofits. The Director of Social Strategy for the American Red Cross, had a slide in her presentation titled, How Americans use Social Tools in Emergencies. The statistic that I couldn’t get out of my head, is that more than 76% of people who posted a distress message to a social media site, expected to be rescued within 3 hours. The Director of Social Strategy for the American Red Cross thought that the public may need some tempering, as to whether or not that was plausible.
I immediately thought, maybe, it depends. Was The Director of Social Strategy for the American Red Cross basing her statement on personnel and resources available or on information available? If she was basing her statement on a personnel and resources available constraint, and that it just isn’t possible to rescue everyone who posts a distress message to a social media site within 3 hours, that made sense to me. However, if she was basing her statement on not being able to process the social media information fast enough to perform a rescue within 3 hours, with readily available personnel and resources, big data analytics may be able to analyze distress messages sent via social media fast enough to make a 3 hour rescue possible.
I will come back to the theoretical 3 hour rescue time frame, but now I want to give you a powerful example of how big data analytics is being utilized right now in business and industry. Recently, the Danish wind power plant manufacturer Vestas Wind Systems and IBM won the 2012 Big Data Award jury at the Computerwoche Big Data Congress in Germany. Lars Christensen, Vice President of Plant Siting & Forecasting, estimates that Vestas will soon have between 18 to 24 petabytes of data. To put that into perspective, that is like watching 70 years of HD video. Of course all of that data is worthless without applying analytics. Using a customized IBM big data analytics solution, answers to queries that used to take Vestas 3 weeks, now take 15 minutes.
Now, let’s go back and think about the theoretical 3 hour rescue time frame, within the context of big data analytics. First, consider an analogy between the data Vestas is analyzing and the number of social media distress messages. If Vestas is able to answer queries in 15 minutes, that used to take 3 weeks, on petabytes of data, I posit that it is theoretically possible to analyze social media distress messages to make a 3 hour rescue time frame plausible. I am not taking into account personnel or resource constraints, but focusing on how social media distress messages could be analyzed in the context of big data.
Although it may appear that I am solely making a case that someone could be rescued within 3 hours of posting a distress message to a social media site, what I’d like to do, is use this specific theoretical scenario to do some inductive reasoning and ask, how can big data be applied for social good?
I have seen big data analytics being discussed in business, academia, and government. I haven’t seen much, if any, discussion and/or application of big data analytics in the humanitarian sector. If you are reading this post and are aware of such discussion and/or application, I welcome the information, as I think that big data analytics could have profound effects on the humanitarian sector.