Last week I picked up Thomas L. Friedman’s book, Thank You for Being Late, and today I came across the NPR article, Could You Help Rewire Income Disparity? Both address the monumental shift in network science and how cloud computing and the connectedness of our world is altering the landscape of everything around us: Friedman’s book a giant, global perspective and the NPR article a tangible, in-the-moment example of how the power of computing will continue, at ever increasing rates, to put social justice into our individual hands.
The NPR article tells how four French network scientists looked at the question of income disparity in the context of neighborhoods and shopping trips. They asked some key strategic questions: “What if people changed their shopping habits and picked up that cat food somewhere else? In particular, what if those paper towels were bought in a less economically advantaged neighborhood? Could just changing shopping trips change the city’s map of economic disparity? If so, how much change was needed to make a difference?”
Their results were fascinating. They found that individuals only need to alter 5 out of 100 shopping trips to create significant change. “The addition of small changes in the shopping destinations of individuals can dramatically impact the spatial distribution of money flows in the city, and the frequency of encounters between residents of different neighborhoods, even if the total number of changes remains small.”
When asked about the implications of their study, one of the researchers “spoke of the possibility of developing apps that might give people different shopping options to rewire the economic health of different neighborhoods”, enabling participative solutions for individuals to create the change they wish to see in their communities. This is the possibility of philanthropy I find thrilling: that as our networks become smarter, and provide us with the tools to act more effectively in our world (whether by calling a taxi or rethinking where we shop), we have the increasing ability to question the status quo and find individually powerful ways to give back. Not just a transaction of money and time, but a way of being in the world that allows our doing to be impactful. A transformational way to align our actions with our intent.
Granted, there are messy implications to Big Data. No solution comes without unintended consequences. But by harnessing the power of this data, we have the potential to understand and solve social problems in new ways, enabling us to make thoughtful and intentional choices to help others, not to mention humanity at large. Which makes the work of a philanthropist ever more important and timely. By grappling with our concept of what enough looks like in our life and creating personal giving plans, we can begin to answer what kind of world do we want to live in? And what are we willing to do in order to achieve it?
The tools are being built faster than we can manage, but as we catch glimpses of this future, we can prepare ourselves to create a just and peaceful world. The tipping point is yet unseen, but it’s coming.