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Commentary: How data-sharing by Big Tech can save lives in disasters, solve new problems

Big Data can saves lives, but tech companies, civil society and policymakers must work together to unlock this potential, says HEC Paris' law and policy professor Alberto Alemanno.

Commentary: How data-sharing by Big Tech can save lives in disasters, solve new problems

A man walks through rubble of houses damaged by the earthquake in Bhaktapur near Kathmandu on Apr 28, 2015. (Photo: AFP/Menahem Kahana)

PARIS: In recent years, no region in the world has been immune to the devastating effects of extreme climate.

The tsunamis in Indonesia, relentless heat waves in Australia, and disastrous droughts in Maldives and Africa, as well as heavy rains in Europe are some examples. With climate change, the frequency and magnitude of these extreme events will only rise.

When disasters strike, questions about the people affected, and who are those at risk come first to mind. In the aftermath of these events, more questions arise as new challenges spark awareness about gaps in our search, rescue and recovery operations.

How long will it take for the population to bounce back? Will critical food supplies, electricity and other essentials be affected? How can damaged infrastructure be repair quickly?

Actually, the data to answer these questions are gathered on a regular basis by national statistical systems.

Debris are seen after the tsunami damage at Sunda strait at Kunjir village in South Lampung, Indonesia, December 28, 2018. Antara Foto/Ardiansyah via REUTERS

But data, typically based on what people report, are not as reliable and granular as those that are revealed through unstructured sources drawn from real-life activities, such as social media use, credit card transactions, high resolution imagery, and phone calls.

Indeed, today, our Big Data technology allows us to know where the epicentre of an earthquake is, how to limit a pandemic like Zika from spreading, or how to reduce pollution in cities.


Most of this much-prized real-time data is in the hands of private entities, rather than public authorities who can best exploit it to respond decisively in crises - including mobile network operators, search titans like Google, and social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter.

Their many features – including geo-localisation and eye-tracking – and our generosity in giving away personal information allow these companies to know more about us than our partners and closest friends. 

Empirical research on almost 100,000 people, for example, revealed that 300 Facebook “likes” allows a computer to determine your personality better than your spouse.

These “likes” and other online activities can determine user location which can help authorities reach out to users in specific areas in the face of disaster to alert those that may be affected.

READ: Many may be forgotten if data drives public policy, a commentary

(Photo: Unsplash/Joshua Hoehne)

Data collected from private entities have been demonstrated to be useful in crisis.

In the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, the country’s largest mobile operator, Ncell, shared its mobile data with the Swedish organisation Flowminder and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in order to map population movements around the country.

These real-time maps allowed the government and humanitarian organisations to better target aid and relief, maximising the impact of their efforts. Ncell and Flowminder won the Global Mobile Award for humanitarian aid collaboration in 2016.

As this illustration shows, tools and data if placed in government hands can have huge positive impact. By disclosing data and triangulating them with other sources, tech companies can help authorities improve national situational awareness and response, and better prioritise interventions around emergency concerns.

The growing quantity of data harvested by companies through search engines, social networking sites, photo sharing sites, messengers, and apps, are however protected by privacy laws, meaning the data that holds great potential in improving society is locked away when most needed.


The welfare-enhancing properties of data-sharing make such a practice a moral necessity but obvious hurdles lie ahead.

While there are a few isolated and self-proclaimed “data philanthropy” initiatives – where private businesses voluntarily share data with researchers or organisations – there are currently no major corporate data-sharing collaborations.

What we need are technical and legal frameworks capable of translating this growing moral imperative into workable and legally sound solutions that continue to uphold personal privacy. Negotiated agreements with companies like Facebook, Google and Apple to share their anonymised database could be one approach.

WhatsApp and Facebook app seen on a phone. (Photo: AFP/Justin Sullivan) WhatsApp says sharing data with Facebook will allow for more targeted advertising and help fight spam. (AFP/Justin Sullivan)

Yet the question remains under what conditions data sharing can occur. More engagement by major tech companies may be instrumental in uncovering clearer guidelines.

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The enduring refusal by the data-rich private sector, notably social media companies, to release part of their data under certain circumstances that serve a broader public interest while not having any qualms exploiting them for commercial gain, is unhelpful.

The public usage of real-time private data could save lives and improve outcomes for people.


Responding to this question demands the recognition of a shared responsibility between the market and the state, and the embracing of a new mindset that prioritises innovative collaborations between policymakers and industry representatives interested in mining the promises of Big Data.

Establishing and sustaining new collaborative and accountable approaches requires the significant, time-consuming investment of resources.

READ: Data is the new 'feet on the ground', a commentary

As more data-rich companies realise the utility of their data and understand how data can be harnessed for good, perhaps we can move towards a more conducive environment for data-sharing.

Emergency disaster response is one such scenario where people can benefit if data is shared expeditiously or in real time. There is a clear case for continued experimentation well beyond data philanthropy.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law & Policy at HEC Paris and he’s the author of ‘Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society’.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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