Data Science That Makes a Difference - InformationWeek

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Data Management // Big Data Analytics
Commentary
9/24/2014
01:06 PM
Vijay Raghavan
Vijay Raghavan
Commentary
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Data Science That Makes a Difference

Big data is about more than just business. It holds potential to address social problems and improve the lives of people around the world.

The best developers generally stay with a company when they believe strongly in its mission. Many of my colleagues deeply relate to what we do for a living -- in fact, several of my teammates see themselves as evangelists for our technology and services because they have also been victims of identity theft, online fraud, or shady mortgage brokers. These personal experiences motivate them to solve problems and work toward protecting consumers' personally identifiable information. For these colleagues, it's not about the so-called big data revolution; it's about simply making a difference.

A recent Edelman Berland survey identified the top technology policy issues on peoples' minds: In addition to keeping their data safe and private, people seek technology innovations that improve everyday life. Data -- made more intelligible by analytics and insights -- is the underlying foundation that makes peoples' lives more convenient, simpler, and generally better.

The next imperative for the evolving field of data science is the mission itself, a self-reflection to assert our better principles: Leveraging the information we analyze for the best purpose possible. Data is being used for global initiatives, in emerging enterprises, and in grassroots communities. Keeping an eye on such programs can help those who analyze data make a positive impact on society at large. Some of my most creative technologists get their ideas by reading The Wall Street Journal, or even a local newspaper, and asking themselves, "How can I help solve that problem?"

The drive to make a difference globally
I often meet with customers, and sometimes policymakers, who are examining new forms of data that can change industries on a global scale. In Amsterdam earlier this year, I met with some members of the European Commission to talk about telematics -- usage-based auto insurance, a concept that is taking off across Africa, Asia, and of course the US. We weren't sure how telematics would be received by politicians, but we imagined they might be reluctant to take a stand on the use of such data.

We were delighted to see these leaders immediately realize the business and consumer benefits. One commissioner said, "This should be great for consumers. They can see their driving behavior on a website and choose to improve their habits. Someone can actually choose to be a safer driver by observing empirical facts about themselves."

[Many factors contribute to the complexity of software development. There is no single solution. Read Software Development: Don't Ignore What Makes It Hard.]

In a world filled with dangerous individuals who fund terrorist activities and imperil lives, data has helped the world's banks learn more about their customers and share watch lists to flag signs of trouble. This is a tremendous initiative to help fight money-laundering all around the world. As a result of data analytics and technology, financial institutions can be more confident that they are doing business with people and businesses they know, and they can vet customers regardless of where they are.

Such collaborations across geographies are helping solve major problems in global business. Nations and NGOs are also joining in, tapping data to solve many of the world's other critical issues.

Data for good expands when businesses take action
Ten years ago, the buzzword "big data" was rarely heard, because only the largest companies had access to enormous volumes of data; very few companies aggregated or generated data in large amounts. These days, however, the proliferation of Internet-ready devices, smartphones, apps, tablets, and social media means that even small and medium-sized companies have data streaming at every moment about their products, services, and customers.

Businesses need to act swiftly, and taking action on reams of data requires a new kind of shorthand. Data scientists are using visualization to make underlying data sets more consumable and actionable, so what was formerly a 40-page report about an individual's track record in payments, for instance, can be reduced to not just a score but a trend. A dense report on a business's history can now be distilled into not just a rating but an interactive chart.

Findings based on data patterns have significant consequences on businesses. Good data can help reduce risks for both enterprises and consumers. It can help consumers who wouldn't otherwise qualify for a loan or a mortgage, for example. It can help ensure that healthcare funds go to retirees rather than fraudsters. It can help ensure that nobody else claims your tax refund.

Social graphs through Facebook and LinkedIn remind us daily just how few degrees separate us from the most obscure connections. Businesses with synergistic initiatives can come together faster

Vijay Raghavan is Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for the risk solutions business of LexisNexis® and for Reed Business Information. In this position, he is responsible for technology development, research and development, information ... View Full Bio
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pfretty
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pfretty,
User Rank: Ninja
10/13/2014 | 10:57:09 AM
Great post!
We often hear that data is all about insight. However in reality, data should be able meaningful actions based off the insights. This is true whether its impacting an organization in some manner like the top three goals in a recent IDG SAS survey (operations, customer relationships, new products) or helping solve a social or health issue. Really the key is to develop a true analytical culture where we all understand and apprecaite the power within understanding data - something that only happens with science.

Peter Fretty
VijayR198
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VijayR198,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/1/2014 | 5:29:42 PM
Re: Great article, thank you for sharing this!
You have a 2-part question, both good ones. The first part is: are bright data scientists attracted to the government, and I believe the answer is Yes. If presidential elections and other big elections can be waged on big data platforms - as they have been for a few years now - and the outcomes are at least partially being decided based on the prowess of data scientists working on these platforms...I can see how elected officials will want to carry on some of this discipline (for socially useful purposes) even after they get elected, and data scientists therefore continue to find interesting work in the government space. The second part of your question, about the courage to tackle the touchy subject of privacy...I think that when governments and the EU etc use big data and big data technologies extensively to solve social problems, they will be able to have a more nuanced debate with the private sector...as opposed to the somewhat black and white debate that tends to occur today. 
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 3:01:55 PM
Making a difference for everyone
I like seeing how business are looking to solve problems beyond their own bottom line with the data they analyze, but are there any examples of not just of solving very first world problems like how bad we all drive but also of global issues such as global warming, making clean water more accessable or things like this?
shamika
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shamika,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 11:15:26 AM
Re: Great article, thank you for sharing this!
As mentioned in this article, good data will always help in better analysis.  It will also help in identifying trends and forecast for the future.
EsthervanLuit
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EsthervanLuit,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/29/2014 | 5:01:47 PM
Great article, thank you for sharing this!
I really enjoyed reading this article as you mentioned some crucial pointers concerning Big Data. In the corporate environment I'm in many look at the opportunities to make money out of Big Data, but tend to overlook the amazing potential that Big Data has to do good in the world. The question that remains is whether the institutions most inclined to look for general societal gains such as governments and the EU can muster up the prowess to attract to bright data scientists who can translate the raw information into clear visuals, and the courage to tackle that touchy subject of privacy to make the world a better place.
shamika
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shamika,
User Rank: Ninja
9/27/2014 | 10:38:53 AM
Re: Data for Good
Also this is an important area. Big data will help in predictive analytics which will help in decision making.
shamika
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shamika,
User Rank: Ninja
9/27/2014 | 9:46:06 AM
Big data
This is an interesting article as well as an interesting topic. The most important fact is that do we really get the best out of big fata we have. In my opinion this is a big question mark.
Data for Good
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Data for Good,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/25/2014 | 4:03:30 AM
Data for Good
Indeed, the number of data science projects for social good is growing every day. But where do you find information about these projects? We had this question in mind for quite some time and then launched dataforgood.co as a platform for finding and sharing data- and tech-driven projects for social good. Check us out and enter the discussion with project owners.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
9/24/2014 | 2:32:37 PM
Data science as a calling
I enjoyed this perspective on how data scientists can use their talents for something more than selling breakfast cereal.
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