How can big data save millions of lives threatened by a pandemic, a natural disaster or simply a poor diet? The answer is both straightforward and thought-provoking. It requires providing public access routes to the phenomenal amount of data we are amassing, processing and recycling.

Today, our big data technology allows us to locate the epicentre of an earthquake, reduce pollution in cities and limit a pandemic such as Zika from spreading. Most of this information can be inferred by analyzing how people check their phones following a disaster or which words they use on social media.

From mapping disease to pollution, big data is a powerful tool
Image: https://ourworldindata.org/air-pollution

There’s just one hitch: most of this prized real-time data belongs to private entities, not the public authorities who could best exploit it to end these crises. The former include mobile network operators and technology firms including Google, through its globally dominant search engine. But the lion’s share is the property of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks to their many features, including geo-localization and eye-tracking, and our acritical generosity in giving away so much personal information, these companies know more about us than our partners and closest friends. Empirical research on almost 100,000 people, for example, revealed that 300 Facebook ‘likes’ allows a computer to determine your personality better than your spouse.

The growing quantity of data harvested by companies through search engines, social networks, photo sharing sites, messengers and apps are the result of the interaction of commercial interests, interface designs, algorithmic processes and users’ indications of preferences, actions and attitudes.

Humanitarian usage of private data underlines its locked potential in improving society. When applied judicially, its positive societal impact is significantly greater. The examples are legion: applying commercial data to urban planning and health presents strong life-enhancing potential; identifying common predictors for liver failures saves lives; assessing certain trigger messages linked to teen suicide enables public authorities to assess better what preventive approaches might (or might not) work. Finally, monitoring people’s use of public and private transport through geo-tagging can generate super-rich data able to determine how a city operates, enabling us to reduce traffic and, naturally, pollution.

Were these tools and data placed in government hands, the positive impact would be consequential, as big data functions as a crucial ‘sense-making resource in the digital era’. In particular, by disclosing these data and mashing them up, technology companies may enable public authorities to improve situational awareness and response, as well as prioritize interventions around emergency health concerns.

Indeed, data provided by companies not only inform us about the feasibility of a given policy intervention but also how to fix any problems it might come up against. If, say, policy-makers implement a soda tax, a health warning or a sale restriction on a product deemed to be unhealthy, they could learn if citizens consume less as a result. In other words, access to social media datasets can improve both the design of new public policies and follow their real-world impact.

It is hard to dispute that the welfare-enhancing properties of data sharing make such a practice a moral necessity. But we simultaneously need technical and legal frameworks capable of translating this growing moral imperative into workable and legally sound solutions. Negotiated agreements with companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple to share their database must be implemented to avoid the exponential increase in societal problems. These will also be instrumental in stemming the societal rejection of their underlying business models.

These technology companies are currently reeling from the negative fallout from scandals such as data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica, initiated by some ‘data philanthropy’, and global-scale tax avoidance. The enduring refusal by the data-rich private sector, notably social media companies, to release part of their data under certain circumstances may trigger a further backlash against them.

Should citizens realize that public usage of real-time private data could save lives or improve health, but that firms are withholding this knowledge, the reputation of social media and other data-rich companies will be further tarnished. How can Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon explain to global users that their own data, which has been aggressively harvested over time, can’t be used for the greater good, and not even in emergency situations?

Responding to this question requires academics and specialists who are interested in mining the promises of big data to undertake a rigorous yet fascinating research journey. While embedding data sharing values in corporate reality is an opportunity for the few tomorrow, it is already a matter of life or death for the many, today.

This article is based on "Data for Good: Unlocking Privately-Held Data to the Benefit of the Many” by Alberto Alemanno, 9 European Journal of Risk Regulation 2 (2018).