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Bridging the divide between data-haves and have-nots through data philanthropy

Around the world today, data is transforming lives for the better, enabling governments and corporates to understand in a way they never could before the needs of citizens and customers, and to deliver products and services tailored to those needs.

But simultaneously, there is growing concern that the underprivileged around the world, who would benefit the most from the data revolution, are getting locked out of it.

Bridging this gap between the data-haves and have-nots lies at the heart of the concept of data philanthropy espoused by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth (the Center). The Center’s stated objective is to advance equitable and sustainable economic growth and financial inclusion around the world.

OpenGov spoke to Ms. Shamina Singh, President of the Center to learn more about data philanthropy. Ms. Alison L. Eskesen, Asia Pacific Regional Director for the Center was also present for the conversation.

Ms. Singh underlined the critical importance of closing the data divide, "We are all focused on income inequality, but information inequality is a much bigger issue, that if we don’t tackle in the near term, I think it’s going to create bigger problems down the road, with the emergence of things like AI technologies."

Mastercard has a vision of using its assets for good. Its assets include the technology and the network, the expertise of the employees, money for philanthropy, and data. Data is the big asset that is as yet largely untapped for social impact. Ms. Singh said, "If we want to be true to the notion of philanthropy, we really need to think about how we are leveraging all of our assets, not just our money."

The Center is an independent subsidiary of Mastercard. A data philanthropy governance committee was formed to ensure that the work is done with absolute integrity and in compliance with all rules and regulations. Mastercard’s Chief Privacy Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Head of Analytics are all present on the committee. The individuals who are dealing with Mastercard data on the business side are also advising on the data philanthropy aspect. 

The data philanthropy governance committee reviews a set of proposals, once or twice a year. As awareness increases of the Center’s activities, a lot more requests are being received.

The first criteria for selection is that the project has to have social impact. The second is whether the data Mastercard will provide will have impact to the study.

The programme itself takes different shapes and forms. The highest form of data philanthropy is a data grant, where Mastercard information insights or aggregated data is shared with an entity who can use it to advance their research proposal. Ms. Singh said that there’s a very high bar the applicants have to meet to get Mastercard data. Most data grants have been to universities and have been given only after careful consideration of the university, their security practices and the purpose of the study. 

Other determinants for data grant recipients include the type of information or data insights that will be used in the study, how Mastercard information will be used will be used with other data and how to ensure compliance with other requirements including privacy and data protection. 

The first data grantee was Harvard University’s Center for International Development (CID). They used the Mastercard information in tandem with other information to conduct research on the flow and accumulation of business ‘knowhow’, a key driver for inclusive economic growth. The researchers uncovered new insights on the dynamics of global business travel, finding that in spite of the technology revolution, business travel remains extensive suggesting that for some key tasks it is easier to move the brains than it is to move the relevant information to brains.

CID used the combined information insights to explore how tourists coming to Colombia were spending their money. Ms. Eskesen explained, "The question was: Are foreign tourists actually contributing to inclusive growth. Do they come in and spend their money in the resort and never leave the resort or do they actually go out into the community. Do they travel to secondary cities and tertiary cities? How far out does that ripple of inclusive growth actually extend?"

"Which is really important from a government perspective, when they are starting to talk about having tourism be a driver for their economy. It might bring more FDI but if it doesn’t actually impact the lives of the people that live there, then they are falling short of realising the potential of tourism," she added. 

In Asia, there are several countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, which depend very heavily on tourism as a driver of economic growth. We asked if there are plans for similar projects in Asia.

Ms. Eskesen said that there have been internal conversations around this. She said, "We are funding a learning tour at a global level around data philanthropy with Stanford University. In Asia, they went to China and Australia to meet with stakeholders, both from the government or public sector, as well as from the private sector and civil society, to understand their concerns and thoughts. That’s really a first stepping stone to understanding what can we do with data philanthropy in this region."

The second type of data philanthropy is one where organisations in the social sector need analytics support. They may not need the data itself but what they require are experts and the infrastructure support to help them understand their own data.

Social sector organisations often have a lot of data, but very little of it is actually being put to use to make better decisions for a country or a community or a city. The NGO or a social organisation can share the data with Mastercard, who can conduct the analysis and provide the results. Or people from Mastercard can come into the organisation and help them figure out how to organise the data and derive insights.

The Center worked with a university in New York to understand why students were dropping out of university close to graduation day. Mastercard data was not used here. But the Center sent a data scientist to analyse their data. Results were contrary to the assumption of financial factors driving the dropouts.

They found that the students were dropping out because of class schedule conflicting with their other responsibilities, such as taking children to school. The university rearranged their schedule to better meet the needs of students.

In another project, the Center was able to perform an analysis to demonstrate the impact crime has on merchant locations and local job opportunities in Baltimore. Mastercard utilized its market insights in tandem with public data on commercial robberies to better understand if there are any relationships between such criminal activity and business closings. Preliminary analysis indicated that a spike in commercial robberies in 2013 was followed by an increase in bar and nightclub closings (a proxy for low-wage retail). The results were similar in Oakland in 2014.

This was done in partnership with the White House’s Data Driven Justice Initiative — an effort to use data to help advance criminal justice reform.

The third level of data philanthropy is engaging Mastercard’s data scientists in this work. Many data scientists at Mastercard were eager to join in when informed about data philanthropy initiatives. In this structure, Mastercard works with organisations like Datakind, which brings together data scientists to take on social problems.

When the partnership started, Mastercard’s data scientists would plug in to volunteer opportunities. The Center provided data scientists to work on social impact projects in Burundi, India, Rwanda and Uganda. Now, those data scientists themselves are coming up with social impact problems they want to solve and organisations they would like to work with.

We asked Ms. Singh to explain what stops corporates from sharing their data. She replied that though it’s hard to argue with the idea of data for good and data for social impact, often it’s harder to negotiate philanthropic use of proprietary data inside a company, when the focus is on commercialisation of data.

"We didn’t start from a place of what can’t we do, which I think is where most people start. The lawyers come in and say no, this cannot happen. We started from a place of, if we want to actually do this, how do we go about it. And we found that there are ways to be engaged," Ms. Singh said. 

When the OECD learnt about the data philanthropy activities of the Center, they invited Mastercard to co-chair a conference with them on the subject. Mastercard’s Chief Privacy Officer will be attending the event. Other companies are going to be invited to share their views on constraints, either real or perceived.

"Because we are in some respects first movers, there’s an enormous responsibility that we feel around how we do it. How do we make sure that we follow the rules and we respect privacy, but at the same time find some sort of path to decision-making that’s not either/ or. We are going to continue and we hope that other companies will start doing this too," Ms. Singh said.

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