Given the abundance of data driving the way we live, work and play, it might be surprising to find that there are major gaps in access and visibility into populations, especially the underserved, underrepresented and most in need.

With the recent adoption of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals to ensure the prosperity of our people, our planet, and our climate, it’s more important than ever that public institutions have a more complete view of populations they serve, and are able to derive smarter solutions from this information. Lack of access to data, technology and analysts has given birth to the data philanthropy movement, whereby private companies can donate data and resources to help solve global challenges.

A data-rich world

We create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day, at an exponentially increasing rate. This incredible amount of information could lead to revelations about how we solve social issues, but it’s not readily available for research. Only 0.5 percent of available data in the world today is actually being analyzed. The opportunities for discovery in this vast digital universe have not even begun to be explored.

Hard drive
– Thinkstock / photodisc

What’s holding us back?

Private companies capture and hold the vast majority of data, using it to drive smarter and faster business decisions. But what they may not realize is that the data they are using for one purpose, may actually be able to serve a myriad of others.

For example, Orange telecom’s Data 4 Development challenge granted researchers access to an anonymized data set of their mobile network in Senegal. The results were revelatory. Researchers discovered that mobile phone use told them where people were traveling to during different times of the year for work, holidays or weather-related conditions.

They then layered on public health data and discovered a pattern in the spread of malaria that correlated to the population migrations. Creating a model from these insights, researchers were able to predict where and when outbreaks will occur, allowing better preparation and even prevention by local services.

Imagine the possibilities if even 1 percent of the 10 Billion Terabytes of privately held data in the world today was made accessible to researchers through initiatives like this.

Data philanthropy gaining momentum

If the exponential rate of data production is any indication, we may not have to wait too much longer before data philanthropy is something every company considers as part of their corporate responsibility platform.

My company, Western Digital, recently partnered with the United Nations Global Pulse to launch the Data for Climate Action innovation challenge. Nine companies came forward to provide anonymized, protected datasets to researchers interested in proposing climate change solutions. These diverse datasets include transportation, environmental, energy, telecommunications, consumer purchasing and social media. We hope the results of the Data for Climate Action Challenge will demonstrate the value of these partnerships and spur expansion of the data philanthropy movement.

What can tech companies offer?

The tech industry in particular has the power to drive this movement by supporting the creation of new methods of collecting vital missing data. An estimated 350 million people globally could be missing from public census data, representing a 25 percent increase in global poverty estimates. Because institutions lack the technology to gather information on these high need populations, they cannot accurately assess supply chains or solutions to meet their needs. Collaborations between the tech industry and international institutions would fill technology gaps, deliver more complete data profiles and increase effectiveness of solutions.

Joining the movement

The benefits for any company interested in data philanthropy and social consciousness are considerable. Not only does it enhance public profile, but attracts higher quality talent who, more and more, are looking for jobs where they feel they are making a difference. Additionally, by 2020, emerging markets’ share of the expanding digital universe will grow from 36 percent to 62 percent. Supporting sustainable development means stronger economies for emerging markets and broader commerce in the digital world. Especially for tech companies, that means more business.

Below are some considerations to get started. For a deeper dive, see Matt Stempeck’s article in the Harvard Business Review.

  • Inventory data, services or technology and consider what would be easy vs. harder to share.
  • Consider who could benefit and who may be harmed by the release of data.
  • Begin conversations with organizations like U.N. Global Pulse or Data 4 SDGs to explore ways to collaborate.
  • Consider how you’ll distribute of data or services. Longer term collaboration is more beneficial to a public organization.
  • Ensure privacy by anonymizing data.
  • Plan to allow any research results to be published without obstruction, under Open Access terms.

Whether interested in donating data, analytics and tools, or even technology, participation in data philanthropy is vital to the future of our planet, ecology and culture. We have the intelligence and the information, we just need the collaboration to create impactful change in this world.

Dave Tang is senior vice president and general manager at Western Digital.