Applications in Data Science Webinar Series Recap: Data Science For Social Good

In a recent webinar hosted by datascience@berkeley, JeanCarlo “JC” Bonilla, Director of Insight and Impact at DataKind, shared his perspective on how data science can be used to not only make better decisions about the movies we watch — but also how to make our world a better place. Participants from around the world tuned in to his one-hour presentation to listen as he explored the use of data for social good.

From renting movies and hailing cabs to buying products and even finding dates, the power of data has dramatically revolutionized the way we live, work, learn, and connect. But what about humanity? How can data science be used to battle hunger, improve education, advocate for child welfare, and save lives?

The Concept and Promise of Data Science for Social Good

Uber, Amazon, Netflix, and Tinder — everywhere you turn it seems as though there are hundreds of success stories about how big data is generating big business for corporate America.

“It is a realm that corporate America and data science have realized,” Bonilla said. “They see promise in looking at data — they see how mining this data and linking it to consumer insights can revolutionize their industries. And they have figured out a way to do it.”

At the same time that corporate America is making great strides by linking data and metrics with their business objectives, Bonilla pointed out that social good lags behind.

“Our world — in terms of poverty, education, gender equality and such — still continues to struggle,” he said. Bonilla explained that nonprofits and governments around the world generate data, but they lack the ability to grab it, link it, and produce the results that data science delivers in the corporate world. “And that’s where DataKind comes in,” Bonilla said.

Headquartered in New York, DataKind is a company that unites organizations with leading data scientists to use data science to promote social good. They have created a network of data scientists who are bringing the same algorithms that companies use to boost profits to mission-driven organizations to boost their impact.

How to Apply Data Science for Social Good 

“It’s all about data, right? The more information, the better,” Bonilla joked.

Beyond just data, Bonilla offered five tips to help guide a data science quest in the social movement:

  1. It takes a village. A successful data science project for social good require a problem statement, datasets, data scientists, social actors, subject matter expertise, and funding.
  2. Start with the question, not the data. Answering the right questions is crucial. “What keeps you up at night?” he asked. “How can we use data to answer the questions? How can we identify what we need to know in order to be more effective?”
  3. Forget “big” data. Size (mostly) doesn’t matter. Bigger isn’t always better. Think more about quality versus quantity. Collect novel data and link it to create interesting relationships.
  4. Good data science follows good design. In the end, the primary motivation is adoption. “Beyond data and math, we want people to take action, which requires a human-centered approach,” he said.
  5. These tools have power; we have responsibility. When it comes to humanity, it’s more than producing data, it’s about making a difference. “When we fail in our work, people get hurt.”

For those interested in practicing data science for social good, Bonilla offered tips for taking the first steps, focusing on how to select and plan projects. He proposed that in the initial stages, taking a close look at context, need, vision, and outcomes are key. Ask: How will the world benefit when your team fulfills mission?

Become Part of the Journey

Throughout the presentation, Bonilla provided several real-world examples and DataKind case studies to illustrate how his teams have used data to help:

  • The American Red Cross uses open data to prevent deaths and injuries from house fires.
  • GiveDirectly uses satellite imagery and machine learning to identify and serve families who live below the poverty line.
  • Crisis Text Line uses text data to help teens in crisis and increase response times in potentially harmful situations.

Bonilla concluded by encouraging attendees to think about technical skills as resources or assets and how they can be used in the business of social good.

“You can use technical skills to create happiness,” he said. “Join us and get started. I promise it will be a fun and rewarding journey.”

About JeanCarlo “JC” Bonilla

Originally from Costa Rica, JeanCarlo “JC” Bonilla is a technology and data management expert specializing in data-driven decisions, technology strategy, and insight delivery. He has over 10 years of experience in cross-functional roles with responsibilities encompassing analytic solutions, strategic planning, technology selection and implementation, staffing and coaching, and resource and budget planning. As the Director of Insight and Impact at DataKind, his role is to lead and oversee programs and portfolio projects to ensure all projects are designed to achieve maximum impact. Prior to joining DataKind, Bonilla worked as an engineer in the aerospace and semiconductor industries followed by a decade in academia. When not at DataKind, you can find him teaching technology strategy and business analytics at New York University.

Citation for this content: datascience@berkeley, the online Master of Information and Data Science from UC Berkeley