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Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

Preserving the "I don't know" within big data

My main concern with an increasing reliance on big data is that the space for possibility and the need for control or certainty too often operate in an inverse relationship. In international aid and philanthropy, our work is often focused on unanswered questions. But are some unanswerable questions?

We have conditioned tendencies that are a result of education, our training, or organizational processes, that make “I don’t know” an unacceptable answer to a question these days. Yet "I don’t know” is found in imprecise information, in unseen or undetectable outcomes. It’s found in our trust in people, in their innate capacities and energy.

I’ve worked extensively in building the M&E capacity of grassroots organizations in Africa. What I have found is that abstract metrics and “big data” often don’t often help people understand their relationship to improving the well-being of those around them. Rather local leaders, as members of a community, read real-time trends via observation of what’s happening on the ground. This, in turn, drives intuition, much like entrepreneurialism. They seem to know what we have forgotten—that this ephemeral life is governed by a multitude of forces.

Most important to me is that our ability as “thinkers” to gather and use data and high-mindedly question everything about “what works” can insulate us and can greatly remove us from the realities of those we’re serving. In practice, this can mean imposing risk-averse procedures on people who are in the process of organizing at grassroots levels.

Undoubtedly, soundly-gathered and -interpreted data can provide important new perspectives for us all to consider. But now more than ever, having more information at our disposal than ever before in our history means that we will need to employ a rigorous humility to increase our tolerance for the risk of “not knowing.” I could not agree more with Cukier and Mayer-Schoenberger in “The Rise of Big Data” in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, that:

"There will be a special need to carve out a place for the human: to reserve space for intuition, common sense, and serendipity."

Consider the Arab Spring - could big data have predicted that? From where we sit, there remains quite a lot we cannot know about how social change occurs.

And I, for one, am okay with that.


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