data science for good

4 Key Takeaways about Data Science for Good

The global “data science for good” movement has found ways to create more equitable and sustainable societies through the power of data.

Take John Paul Farmer, Director of Technology & Civic Innovation at Microsoft, for example. Based in New York City, his role brings together technology with cross-disciplinary collaboration to create positive change. John and his team work with local governments, organizations, companies, research institutions, and ethical hackers. Their data-driven projects1 have helped people overcome language barriers, increase accessibility to STEM education, address transportation safety, and more.

Following his talk on a data science for good panel at the Value of Data — a data-focused industry event hosted by Bloomberg and Western Digital — John sat down to share his thoughts as a civic innovator. In this article, we expand on his ideas and explore four takeaways of the data science for good movement.

1. The Modern Impact of Data Science on Society

“The combination of big data, massive compute power, and the skills that people are gaining as data scientists, computer scientists, and the like offers so much to society,” John Paul Farmer, Director of Technology & Civic Innovation at Microsoft

Today’s data scientists have deep skillsets in statistics, machine learning, AI, data mining, and data visualization. But, they’re not limiting the uses of their talent to business applications. Sure, typical uses of data science include personalized recommendations for movies and television shows, suggested products to buy, and virtual assistants to automate your tasks at home. But, a growing number of data scientists are joining forces to address some of the world’s biggest challenges through online data competitions.

One such issue is using data to speed up climate action. A recently announced data challenge2 asks teams of up to four data scientists to create a model that can detect oil palm plantations in satellite imagery. Research suggests that the continued development of such plantations could threaten the habitats of endangered species in West and Central Africa.3 By using data science, this predictive analytics challenge could have a meaningful impact on communities around the world.

2. Who Sees My Data? Addressing Data Privacy Concerns

Data breaches were a common theme throughout 2018, unfortunately. 4 The millions of people that had their data exposed, larger in number. Consumers spoke out about their concerns with data ethics and privacy and demands for companies to right the ship.

To be clear, artificial intelligence and machine learning have played a key role in data science for good. These technologies are at the heart of a web-based tool that can translate conversational language5 in real-time. Still, some tech leaders joined research organizations that have oversight to keep AI from being misused or abused. The ultimate goal is to develop uses of artificial intelligence that benefit society at large within the boundaries of safety and sustainability.6

3. Regulation and Data Science for Good as Friends, Not Enemies

“We want to make sure that we’re protecting people and their civil rights from abuse—whether by private sector actors or authoritarian governments,” John Paul Farmer, Director of Technology & Civic Innovation at Microsoft

2018 also saw the rolling out of one of the most significant changes in the history of data privacy governance—General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. The legislation created a new set of guidelines for the collection, use, and sharing of personal information for all organizations that either operate or offer goods or services to customers or businesses within the European Union.7 It was further proof of the commitment of governing bodies to protect and empower citizens with their data.

The same principle holds for data science for good initiatives. Organizations that collect and analyze potentially personal data must do so after taking the steps to get proper user consent and anonymizing the data. As John points out, regulation puts into place a standard set of rules for companies to follow that prevents data from being misused. In this way, both businesses and the people they serve can benefit from the applications powered by data science.

4. What the Future Could Hold for Data Science for Good

Around the world, countries are preparing for the societal impact powered by data science adopted at scale. Since 2017 alone, reports have shown at least 17 countries or commissions8 that have made public their strategies to promote the use of artificial intelligence, including:

  • China
  • The EU Commission
  • India
  • Japan
  • United Kingdom

With buy-in from some of the biggest countries around the world, data science could start to become more apparent in people’s day-to-day lives. For some, the impact might be seen in the adoption of education technology9 to create more personalized lesson plans for students. For others, data science could play a role in the production of fully autonomous vehicles that keep people safer on the road. And, for others still, medical care might become more proactive and non-invasive, thanks to data.

Read More on Data Science for Good

  • The United Nations Global and Western Digital partnered in a global data innovation challenge to harness big data and data science to accelerate climate action.
  • WIRED and Western Digital show you how a seemingly small 4 degrees Celsius rise in the average global temperature could cause irreversible damage to our cities, environment, and food supply.

Data Impact: What Could Happen in a World that's 4 degrees warmer


  1. Progress in New York City: Technology for Social good.
  2. WiDS 2019 Datathon.
  3. Oil Palm.
  4. The 21 scariest data breaches of 2018.
  5. Conversations – Microsoft Translator.
  7. What is GDPR.
  8. An Overview of National AI Strategies.
  9. How is AI Used in Education.

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