Chapter 1. Data and Social Good

Several years ago, large management consulting firms began describing data as the “new oil”—a magically renewable and seemingly inexhaustible source of fuel for spectacular economic growth. The business media rapidly picked up on the idea, and reported breathlessly about the potential for data to generate untold riches for those wise enough to harness its awesome power.

At the same time, another story was unfolding. That story wasn’t about a few smart guys getting rich. It was about people using data to improve lives and make the world a better place.

For many of us, it’s an alluring narrative, perhaps because it supports our hope that deep down, data scientists and statisticians are nice people who value social good over crass materialism.

Megan Price, for example, is director of research at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. She designs strategies and methods for using data to support human rights projects in strife-torn countries like Guatemala, Colombia, and Syria. “I’ve always been interested in both statistics and social justice,” Price says. In college, she started off as a math major, switched to statistics, and later studied public health in grad school. “I was surrounded by people who were all really invested in using their math and science skills for social justice. It was a great environment for bringing those interests together.”

In Guatemala, Price serves as lead statistician on a project in which she analyzes documents from the ...

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