Data philantropy – And happy birthday Tim

Thank you, Tim, and many returns

Yesterday, 8th of June, was Tim Berners-Lee’s birthday. Some of you may know who he is. For others, his name may ring a bell, but if you ask the vast majority of people currently surfing the net who was the first to put some of the earlier networking theories in practice, most people won’t have an answer.

It was Tim Berners-Lee, on 25 December 1990, with the help of Robert Cailliau and a young student at CERN, who implemented the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet.

Tim Berners-Lee

But the fact that a lot of people aren’t familisarised with the person that made Internet available to millions of people in the planet is because Tim Berners-Lee is is a very unassuming humanitarian and philantropist. He has not benefitted from the fame and riches that such an achievement could have landed him. Instead, he has remained committed to making the web universally accessible, without patents or royalties due. A practicing Unitarian Universalist, this is how he describes the principles behind the world wide web:

“The parallels between technical design and social principles have recurred throughout the Web’s history. About a year after I arrived to start the consortium, my wife and I came across Unitarian Universalism. Walking into a Unitarian Universalist church more or less by chance felt like a breath of fresh air. Some of the association’s basic philosophies very much match what I had been brought up to believe. People now sometimes even ask whether I designed the Web based on these principles. Clearly, Unitarian Universalism had no influence on the Web. But I can see how it could have, because I did indeed design the Web around universalist (with a lowercase u) principles.” Weaving the Web, p. 207-08.

To help ensure that the Web remained a free and open entity, independent of any particular government or corporation, he formed the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994. The Consortium helps to mediate the aims and conflicts of companies involved in the development of the Web and it also helps establish and promote standards and protocols that work for both web designers and for web browsers.

Knighted Sir Tim Berners-Lee, his passion to ensure that the data on the net remains open and accessible to everyone, he has been working with the UK Government to on the project dedicated to  open up almost all data acquired for official purposes for free re-use. Tim continues to champion for greater openness, accountability and transparency in governments to give people more information about their choices and a wider range of choices.

Data philantropy

The vast amount of information that has been produced, exchanged and stored thanks to Tim Berners-Lee invention poses an important challenge for our future. Whether we use it wisely and productively, as he originally intended, remains to be seen.

While corporations vigorously collect customers’ “massive passive data” or “digital exhaust“- about the products we buy and about our Internet usage patterns – in order to gain an advantage over their competitors, there are other initiatives dedicated to the concept of “data philanthropy” or the sharing of datasets for social good.

Global Pulse, for instance, an initiative of the  UN Secretary-General, has been actively “asking questions, formulating and testing hypotheses, building prototypes and collaborating with partners within and outside the United Nations to develop methods for harnessing real-time data to gain a real-time understanding of human well being”.

Interestingly, Global Pulse is working with corporations to find ways to use the data stored to forecast and consequently improve on key social and demographic events like jobs loses, illnesses, undernourishment, or difficulties to make ends meet.

For instance, Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of Global Pulse explains that  MIT researchers have found evidence that changes in mobile phone calling patterns can be used to detect flu outbreaks. Or how researchers from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and Columbia University have used data from Digicel, Haiti’s largest cell phone provider, to determine the movement of displaced populations after the earthquake, aiding the distribution of resources. Or the research by Telefónica Research team which demonstrated that calling patterns can be used to identify the socioeconomic level of a population, which in turn may be used to infer its access to housing, education, healthcare, and basic services such as water and electricity.

Another initiative in the right direction is the one undertaken by WINGS, in partnership with the Foundation Center. With the aim to build a global data platform, Wings also promotes a culture of data management for philanthropy, collects data in different regions, and validates a set of data codes in order to generate comparable information.  In 2010, for instance, Wings produced a study on institutional philanthropy in several countries which have proven to be of great value to a large audience, including policy makers, philanthropists, non-profit organisations, and academics.

But as Robert Kirkpatrick explains, the challenge in the future is for companies that engage in data philantropy to recognise that the welbeing  of populations should be a precondition for the growth and continuity of their businesses. What is needed now, Kirkpatrick explains, is to “find a way for the private sector to share, safely and anonymously, some of what it knows about its customers to help give the public sector a badly needed edge in protecting citizens”.


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