I’ve spent the past 12 months working with top notch data scientists at QCRI et al. The following may thus be biased: I think QCRI got it right. They strive to balance their commitment to positive social change with their primary mission of becoming a world class institute for advanced computing research. The two are not mutually exclusive. What it takes is a dedicated position, like the one created for me at QCRI. It is high time that other research institutes, academic programs and international computing conferences create comparable focal points to catalyze data science for social good.
Microsoft Research, to name just one company, carries out very interesting research that could have tremendous social impact, but the bridge necessary to transfer much of that research from knowledge to operation to social impact is often not there. And when it is, it is usually by happenstance. So researchers continue to formulate research questions based on what they find interesting rather than identifying equally interesting questions that could have direct social impact if answered by data science. Hundreds of papers get presented at computing conferences every month, and yet few if any of the authors have linked up with organizations like the United Nations, World Bank, Habitat for Humanity etc., to identify and answer questions with social good potential. The same is true for hundreds of computing dissertations that get defended every year. Doctoral students do not realize that a minor reformulation of their research question could perhaps make a world of difference to a community-based organization in India dedicated to fighting corruption, for example.
The challenge here is not one of untapped cognitive surplus (to borrow from Clay Shirky), but rather complete cognitive mismatch. As my QCRI colleague Ihab Ilyas puts it: there are “problem owners” on the one hand and “problem solvers” on the other. The former have problems that prevent them from catalyzing positive social change. The later know how to solve comparable problems and do so every day. But the two are not talking or even aware of each other. Creating and maintaining this two-way conversation requires more than one dedicated position (like mine at QCRI).
In short, I really want to have dedicated counterparts at Microsoft Research, IBM, SAP, LinkedIn, Bitly, GNIP, etc., as well as leading universities, top notch computing conferences and challenges; counterparts who have one foot in the world of data science and the other in the social sector; individuals who have a demonstrated track-record in bridging communities. There’s a community here waiting to be connected and needing to be formed. Again, carrying out cutting edge computing R&D is in no way incompatible with generating positive social impact. Moreover, the latter provides an important return on investment in the form of data, reputation, publicity, connections and social capital. In sum, social good challenges need to be formulated into research questions that have scientific as well as social good value. There is definitely a sweet spot here but it takes a dedicated community to bring problem owners and solvers together and hit that social good sweet spot.