CSR & Big Data: How leading companies are leveraging their data & information for social good

By Katy Moore, WRAG’s Managing Director of Corporate Strategy & Sean Herpolsheimer, WRAG’s 2018 Summer Fellow

Many of today’s societal challenges are incredibly complex, interconnected, and ever-evolving. As those in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) space look to tackle some of these seemingly intractable problems, they are beginning to look beyond traditional efforts such as charitable giving, employee volunteerism, and sustainable practices.

Big problems require big solutions. And, most companies have BIG amounts of data – on customers, vendors, employees, click histories, online purchases, and much more. A few companies are starting to harness this data for social good and expand their tool box for community change.

Stefaan Verhulst, the co-founder and chief research and development officer of NYU’s Governance Laboratory, is one of the country’s leading “data for good” experts. He works with companies, governments, nonprofits and others – often in collaboration with one another – to identify various data assets and develop strategies to leverage those assets for public good.

One example Verhulst offers is NCell, Nepal’s largest telecom company. After the devastating earthquakes in 2015, NCell created a tool to utilize its users’ data to track population displacement and migration, which allowed disaster response teams to target their relief efforts where need was greatest, in real time.

JP Morgan (which has a financial relationship with over 50% of American households) has created an entire research organization dedicated to leveraging its customer data for public good. Fiona Grieg, the director of consumer research at the JP Morgan Chase Institute, describes the firm not just as a bank, but a data and technology firm.

With insight into millions of Americans’ financial information, spending patterns, and buying habits, the JPMC Institute is able to report on a wide variety of trends – some that you wouldn’t anticipate from a financial institution. One example is tracking healthcare spending. From its customers’ financial transactions, the firm’s data analysts are able to see that Americans spend the most on healthcare in the 60 days after they receive their tax refunds. Grieg explains that this is a troubling trend for the US economy. If people are putting off needed medical treatments or foregoing preventative care until they have discretionary income, then healthcare premiums tend to go up as more people rely on emergency services down the line.

One other example Greig shares is the JPMC Institute’s effort to identify food deserts. They do this by analyzing how far people are traveling from their homes to buy fresh groceries. The firm is able to share this information with government officials, developers and community leaders to spur action.

PwC, another firm harnessing data for good, is taking a different approach. Stacey Magdaluyo, a manager at PwC US Responsible Business Leadership, explains how her firm partnered with Opportunity Nation, a coalition of nonprofits across the country focused on economic mobility, to produce the Opportunity Index. This online tool measures 16 opportunity indicators and scores all 50 states, DC, and more than 2,600 counties, thereby giving policymakers, nonprofits, and community leaders a useful tool to identify areas for improvement and gauge progress over time.

One way PwC contributed to the partnership was by assigning their in-house Artificial Intelligence (AI) team to work with Opportunity Nation in a pro bono capacity. The AI team, using their expertise in machine learning and natural language processing, worked in partnership with the research experts at Opportunity Nation to develop a number of new Index tools. One such tool clusters counties that share similar traits and allows them to compare, benchmark, and share best practices with their peers across the country. Another allows counties to gather anecdotal information and gauge community sentiment by tracking what is being discussed in the news media and on community forums in their regions.

In order for more companies to begin leveraging data for social good, Verhulst stressed the importance of having community-minded data stewards inside corporations – a position that does not or vary rarely exists in most companies. He also encouraged corporate philanthropy and community engagement professionals to see data as a potential community asset and to begin to build bridges across departments to explore what’s possible for their companies and communities.

The data age holds extraordinary promise for those of us who are dedicated to community impact and social change. Onward you awesome data nerds! We can’t wait to see what problems you’ll tackle next.