SOCIETY | Nov 21, 2019

DISKOW: Big Data in support of social work

The European project shows how technology can give new opportunities to people who, as a result of wars and famines, have lost everything and want to get going again.

We often hear that the Web or Big Data are the new gold mines and that were we to analyze all data from social media, logs, search engines, forums, right up to Linked Open Data, there would be many things to discover. Disregarding the problems arising from discoveries which can jeopardize our privacy or the ability of a State to support free elections without external interference (as demonstrated by the now sadly famous scandal of Cambridge Analytica), are we really sure that there is the possibility of unearthing “good” knowledge from data, useful not only for individual “researchers” but also for the “public good”?


A manifesto for the ethical use of Big Data

A couple of years ago, some professors and researchers felt the need to launch a manifesto to put down on paper the guiding principles for the ethical use of (Big) Data. In 2017, professors Roberto V. Zicari and Andrej Zwitter in fact identified a series of dangers for humanity and democracy and for this reason they invited people and institutions to share the motivations for the use of data for the common good and the well-being of humanity.

  1. Do no harm

Do not hurt or harm. Think of the use of personal data to grant or deny medical treatment (unfortunately, this practice is not only relegated to science fiction films on the future of hyper-technological humanity) or of military use to pilot drones with weapons or explosives. Note that this is the only negative motivation: a very simple definition and at the same time equally effective for collecting many cases, all negative, for people and humanity.

  1. Use data to help create peaceful coexistence

Data to help create a peaceful coexistence (between peoples and nations). It seems the most distant context for a technical specialist, but the disparity of access to information (in addition to that of access to water and primary goods) is often a cause of conflict also. In its 2030 Agenda, the United Nations itself identified that there is no sustainable development without promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies (Sustainable Development Goal #16 – Promote Just, Peaceful, and Inclusive Societies). At the end of last year, an interesting report described how Big Data technologies fostered the stability and coexistence of African populations.

  1. Use data to help vulnerable people and people in need

Data to help vulnerable people and those in need. Think of the single emergency number and of tracking telephone cells to triangulate the position of the caller: a network purpose, unfortunately still not active in Italy as we discovered this summer after the death of hiker Simon Gautier who went missing in Cilento.

  1. Use data to preserve and improve natural environment

Data to preserve and improve the natural environment. For example, the FAO has several initiatives in the field of Fishery for analyzing local data integrated with monitoring data provided by ESA “sentinels” in order to monitor poaching, identify the change in restocking areas to be made fishing reserves, etc..

  1. Use data to help create a fair world without discrimination

The use of data to create a fair, just and non-discriminatory world. The quantity of data that we generate during our activities on the Web (and in the future through our autonomous cars, our automated houses and the various sensors which can be worn for sports or health, etc….) is already the subject of potential discrimination for offers and prompts that are or are not suggested to you by search engines. It is well known that the results of a search are also filtered and sorted according to our profile: on one hand this means the best matching of the results and on the other a bias which does not show us news or other elements which we might not even know we want. In 2016 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) analyzed the misuse of the data collected and the interesting conclusions are in this report.

In addition, the Commission will continue to examine and raise awareness about big data practices that could have a detrimental impact on low-income and underserved populations and promote the use of Big Data that has a positive impact on such populations”.

Data for work

The question of the availability to access information is also a very important issue in the labor market, which is why friends are often approached. Word of mouth is still the most effective way to obtain information which is right for you. Indeed, the difficulty in circulating information about open positions (placement) is a problem felt by industries too: there are staff shortage problems not only for new professional figures (such as Data Scientists), but also for more manual or craft jobs, such as welders or blacksmiths.

The correlation between supply and demand is a known problem. In 2016, the EDISON project investigated how Big Data and Data Analytics technologies could help match supply and demand for data-related professions. The same approach was implemented by Fabio Mercorio at the Bicocca in Milan to create a proof-of-concept of a European placement portal. This idea of using Artificial Intelligence techniques also led to the birth of a start-up which provides data concerning the labor market. Not only in Europe but also in the USA, labor market analysis services are in a state of flux, as is demonstrated by the Glassdoor portal. Engineering too collaborates with the labor departments of some regions (Trentino, Emilia Romagna, Lazio, etc….) to create portals for employment, online environments where workers and companies can obtain all the information to fulfil their requirements.

Data for inclusion

An even more interesting case is that of the adoption of Big Data techniques and Artificial Intelligence algorithms for setting up services in favor of refugee placement. The issue of refugee inclusion is certainly not new, nor is the adoption of ICT tools to facilitate communication and information networking. The city of Frankfurt has been experimenting with this since 2015 with an app which targets refugees from various warring nations to help them find their bearings in the city’s services and to connect with the local population.

On the subject of placement, however, we had not yet seen anything, which is why the European Commission, within the framework of Erasmusplus projects, has funded an initiative called DISKOW to support refugee placement through a shared knowledge base. One year after its launch, a workshop was held to present the project at Engineering’s headquarters in Rome.

Philosophers, legal experts, social promotion associations and the refugees themselves will be present to discuss how (and whether) technology can provide new opportunities for those who, due to war and famine, have lost everything and want to get going again.


Giampaolo Fiorentino e Andrea Manieri