If your company had data that could help save lives, or feed the hungry, or slow global warming, or impact society in any significant way, what would you do with it?

How many critical initiatives — and potential solutions to humanity’s biggest problems — die on the vine because data can’t be found, or is needlessly hoarded, or lacks context? Whatever the number, it’s too many.

A growing number of companies are finding ways to share some of their data as corporate data philanthropists. Before you mentally run through all the reasons your company can’t or won’t be one of them, before you decide that your company doesn’t have any data worth sharing, or it’s simply too risky, please ask yourself this:

What if you’re wrong?

The stakes are too high to dismiss data donation out of hand. In fact, there is a good chance that your company has data that can be released for public benefit at very little risk. You have a chance to help ignite a spark that changes the course of history.

The data philanthropy landscape

In her wonderful TED@UPS talk, Mallory Soldner, Advanced Analytics Manager at UPS, identifies three categories of data philanthropy:

All three categories are absolutely vital. However, data donation is the least understood, and has the unique potential to yield rapid humanitarian relief, widespread and sustained societal impact, and valuable shared knowledge.

Open or private?

Corporate data donation efforts can generally be divided into two groups:

Private data donation: providing access to specific datasets, within closed environments, to specific parties, for specific ends.

Open data donation: providing access to specific datasets, under open licenses, within public repositories or via open APIs, for general or specific ends.

Private data donation is the more common variant. For example, Safaricom gave researchers at select institutions access to a full year of “de-identified” calls and texts from 15m Kenyan mobile phones. According to the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth:

Researchers combined Safaricom’s data on call locations with local infectious disease data and were able to map and estimate the spread of malaria. The data revealed that malaria outbreaks started near Lake Victoria before spreading east toward Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Open data donation is rare, but there are notable examples. Syngenta collaborated with the Open Data Institute to release a “searchable, usable, and shareable” dataset containing:

…baseline information for agricultural efficiency indicators collected on 3,600 farms in 41 countries across Europe, Africa, Latin America, North America and Asia Pacific, representing about 200 crop-climate combinations. It was the first time information at a crop level had been made public in this way by a commercial organisation.

This was far from an open “data dump.” The company also primed the data release for positive outcomes by holding innovation workshops and taking other steps to facilitate its sharing and use.

Of course, many datasets should not be released openly due to customer privacy concerns and competitive risk. Anonymization, aggregation, and other forms of data de-risking require time, expertise, computing cycles, and other costs. As such, private data donation is the default. But open data donation can bring society to the next echelon of impact.

Open data donation leverages the power of the crowd. More people to analyze it, share subject matter expertise, test hypotheses, create new knowledge, detect patterns, and power derivative innovations. As data literacy is rapidly democratized, more people than ever before have what it takes to extract societal value from data. These people may not work with data for a living, but their enthusiasm and skills should be unleashed to solve tough problems.

Open data donation increases the probability that a given dataset will produce unexpected, positive outcomes. Focused, disciplined efforts to reach specific outcomes are effective, but when the data these projects rely on can be released on a broader basis, it can serve as the raw material for surprising innovations.

Recent history bodes well for open data donation. Consider the open source movement, in which companies first dipped their toes in the water by consuming open source code, and then, once its societal value was clear, and the community grew large enough, they were motivated to contribute open source code of their own. We started out this way at our previous business, Bazaarvoice, using open source code before contributing our own. It feels good to be a giver, and to motivate others to contribute.

Your company can make history and help solve the world’s problems by participating in these early stages of open data donation. Perhaps more important than any one open data donation effort is the role you can play in inspiring other companies to follow suit. You can help determine if corporate data philanthropy is an idea whose time has come — it’s an idea worth spreading, to borrow TED’s tagline.

How to get started

Corporate data donors should work through the following steps, which have been adapted from Matt Stempack’s powerful article in Harvard Business Review:

  1. Inventory what you have
  2. Determine who could benefit, and who could be hurt
  3. Determine if you need consent, and if you have it
  4. Ask potential beneficiaries what they need, what formats they prefer
  5. Plan your means of donation (bulk release, API, etc.)
  6. Strip data of Personally-Identifiable Information (PII)
  7. Choose an open license

Ask us for help

We want to see this new movement flourish. If your company wants to help light the spark, please reach out to datadonation@data.world. As a Public Benefit Corporation, data.world commits to providing free data repositories, data science expertise, or other forms of assistance to companies who wish to make significant open data donations to benefit society.

We believe that the time for data philanthropy and data donation is now; Mallory Soldner at UPS, Robert Kirkpatrick at UN Global Pulse, and other leaders are blazing the trail. Act and others will act.