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"Data scientist" may very well be the “sexiest job of the 21st century,” but data philanthropy will likely take longer to catch on, as it depends on dubious information sharing amidst an “era of big data” where information is currency.

This past week, the Harvard Business Review blog featured a piece “Sharing Data Is a Form of Corporate Philanthropy.” The piece – authored by Matt Stempeck – was a clarion call to private data businesses to share their assets with “public sector and social good organizations.” The term “data philanthropy” simply means the corporate giving of informational material. Demonstrating the potential benefits of such philanthropy, the article highlights “responsive cities and academic research” as the recipients with the most to gain.

While the argument is cogent, the examples Stempeck employs to demonstrate his thesis are rather curious. For example, to launch his argument he introduces the information sharing of the company DMC International Imaging (as background, the article shares that this company has provided necessary data influencing responsive decision-making for a host of natural disasters). However, even the author acknowledges that this information sharing is a direct response to the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. Though it was certainly voluntary to become a member of the charter, the politicization of this agreement from national governments as well as the United Nations suggests the plausibility of spurious causes for such “philanthropy.” Additionally, DMC is a subsidiary of Surrey Satellite Technology, a UK company with great historical ties to the University of Surrey. Rather than “philanthropy,” this perceived relationship between “private data business” and “academic research” sounds more in the realm of reciprocity.

Expectedly, the article then turns from data philanthropy to “strategic philanthropy,” which the author borrows the definition from Michael E. Porter and Mark Kramer’s Competitive Advantage of Corporate Philanthropy:

[W]here a company derives value from socially responsible behavior and programs not because of the positive public relations such activities generates, but because this type of philanthropy can significantly improve the competitive business environment within which the business operates.

Outlining how this philanthropy can “improve” the environment, HBR turns to Hilary Mason who explains the relationship between private data companies and academic researchers. According to Mason, sharing data 1) “is a great press opportunity,” 2) “demonstrates that credible people outside of our company find our work interesting,” 3) “is an easy way to access highly educated brainpower, for free,” and 4) “[is] the absolute best way to recruit talent.” While I certainly do not think self-interest and philanthropic endeavors are necessarily contradictory, the exclusive focus on the benefits for the giver rather than the recipient intimate opportunism rather than charity. (I will note, though, neither of Mason’s articles [the original piece nor the complimentary piece] was forwarding an identical argument as the HBR post.)

Finally, the article closes with “steps” that companies can take when “considering data philanthropy.” However, the steps neglect to note how giving away information can hurt the company – in other words, by giving data away so freely, this call for philanthropy seems to underestimate how the information is a currency, a modern product. In order to foster self-interest properly understood, the company must also (in addition to Stempeck’s steps) question how this data sharing will affect the donor as well as the grantee.

Though Stempeck’s article undoubtedly introduces a topic that those on the “cutting edge” of philanthropy will further analyze, it should be noted that the timeless virtues of charity and selflessness, as well as business acumen, remain the frame for corporate philanthropy.

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