Harnessing Big Data for Social Good: A Grand Challenge for Social Work

Journal Article by Claudia J. Coulton, Robert Goerge, Emily Putnam-Hornstein, Benjamin de Haan
July 2015

Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development   (Cleveland)

The digital revolution is producing vast quantities of social, psychological, and organizational data that social workers can harness to address society’s most difficult problems. Data from computerized social service, education, and health records; open data portals; social media posts; web searches; and mobile GPS devices and sensors can help to illuminate social problems and propel effective solutions. Technological innovations have made it possible to manage and analyze such digital assets in real time. Despite the technological progress, the social sector has been slow to incorporate a continuous flow of data analytics to inform policy and practice. Because most social program data remain in silos, it is difficult to demonstrate the efficacy and long-term cost benefits of programs and practices that make use of big data, which precludes social investments in such programs and practices. The fundamental knowledge of big data management is currently too limited among social work professionals to allow for effective collaboration with other disciplines and specialists to accelerate data-driven social innovation. The field also lacks an effective framework to address the legal, ethical, and privacy concerns inherent in the use of personal data. A grand challenge for social work is to build the capacity to deploy these powerful digital resources to discover and apply social solutions to benefit society.