Home PublicationsCommentary Big Data’s Positive Impact on Underserved Communities is Finally Getting the Attention it Deserves

Big Data’s Positive Impact on Underserved Communities is Finally Getting the Attention it Deserves

by Joshua New
Chicago Snow Plow

When it comes to empowering underserved communities, big data is making a big impact. Until recently, this trend has largely gone unrecognized by policymakers and members of the public alike, but this is slowly changing, as some high-profile individuals have begun highlighting this unique benefit of big data. Most recently, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Terrell McSweeny delivered a keynote address at a Washington, D.C. policy forum sponsored by Google in which she outlined the many ways that the era of big data has enabled the government to be more responsive and effective at addressing the public’s problems, including by better addressing the needs of underserved communities.

In her remarks, Commissioner McSweeny described how both the Internet of Things and open data are unlocking new benefits for citizens. In California, cities are using the Internet of Things to mitigate the effects of the drought by enabling local authorities to enforce restrictions on water use with data from smart meters. Not only that, but with sensors that monitor infrastructure and soil moisture, cities can better identify and repair leaky pipes, improve wildfire prevention efforts, and help the agriculture industry use less water—efficiency gains that McSweeny says saves government agencies tens of thousands of man hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Government support for open data has also been an enormous boon for addressing tough social challenges. McSweeny described how health officials in cities such as Baltimore and New York are using Census data to better target underserved communities that were not taking advantage of free medical services. And on the federal level, McSweeny touched on some of the many examples of how open data delivers social benefits, ranging from providing prospective college students and their families information that can lead to better financial planning decisions to improving how the government responds to natural disasters.

McSweeny also discussed how data can deliver value beyond its initial use. For example, the city of Chicago has built a portal that enables residents to track and request snowplows in real time and connects volunteers to elderly or infirmed Chicago residents that need help shoveling their sidewalks and driveways. While this has made life for Chicago residents easier, researchers at the University of Chicago have also been able to use this data to identify and map underserved neighborhoods to help the city more equitably provide important public services, ranging from sidewalk repair to pest control.

The FTC has witnessed firsthand how data can improve the lives of consumers. McSweeny highlighted the FTC’s 2013 Robocall Challenge, which called on civic-minded hackers and programmers to develop solutions to the problem of automated telemarketing calls using a wealth of consumer complaint data on robocalls. The winning solution from the challenge has helped stop more than 36 million unwanted robocalls, and a second robocall challenge this year resulted in technology that can automatically detecting and divert robocalls to a crowd-sourced –a source of data that authorities can use as bait–allowing consumers to filter out desired calls from undesired ones.

It was heartening to hear such an esteemed figure in Washington policy community so clearly articulate how data is empowering individuals. The public and private sectors are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible with data, but more champions will be needed to ensure that the benefits of data are fully realized by all.

Image: Arvell Dorsey Jr. 

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