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Big data, challenge prizes, and philanthropy

Jordan Junge & Kendra Schreiner

Challenge prizes have been used to spur innovation for centuries, but have recently surged in use. This is due to a number of factors, including recognition of the wide range of ways in which they can produce change and shift wider perceptions, as well as increased philanthropic wealth, shifting attitudes to risk, growing interested in open source approaches, and an increasingly tech-driven world.

A challenge prize is “a tool for stimulating, supporting and testing innovation, particularly among new groups of people.” By offering a reward to whomever can develop the most effective solution to a defined problem, they can accelerate innovation and change. Big data is fertile ground for challenge prizes: the explosive growth and collection of data has created an unprecedented resource for the creation of change, but this potential is largely untapped.

Foundations and philanthropists have an important role to play in using big data for social good. SIX is working with four foundations from around the world to explore how data can be used to help cross-sector partnerships address complex problems. We seek to highlight successful global examples to inspire others, curate an action-led dialogue, and explore the role and entry points for philanthropies to engage with and enable data-driven ecosystems and systemic change around social challenges.  

Through our research, we've identified numerous foundations that are engaging with big data through challenge prizes.

Philanthropic organisations, and private industry donating data as a form of philanthropy, are using  prizes to address a wide variety of global and local issues across sectors. The following examples in climate, health, gender, development, and education highlight different ways that foundations engage in this field.

  1. Data for Climate Action, launched by UN Global PulseWestern Digital, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund in 2017, sought solutions for climate change challenges. Eleven leading companies provided access to datasets and tools to more than 450 teams from 67 countries. Cash prizes were awarded to six projects, whose focus ranged from reducing air pollution to optimising seeding dates. The Grand Prize winner, “Electro-mobility,” used traffic data from traffic app Waze, emissions modeling, and Google’s ‘Popular Times’ to understand population movements and emissions in Mexico City. Using this information, the team has suggested locations for electric vehicle charging stations and three policies for reducing emissions in Mexico City. Some of their proposals are currently being considered by Mexico City and in discussions around the drafting of a national Mexican electro-mobility agenda.    

  2. Big data is being used to improve public health and patient care. This is occurring in a variety of ways, from using machine learning and GPS to monitor and predict needs for those with dementia, to using real-time data from smart inhalers to help reduce asthma. Philanthropic challenge prizes are also playing a role. In 2013, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, California HealthCare Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, and the Health Data Consortium teamed up with the Knight Foundation to launch a $2 million challenge for innovative uses of health data. The Camden Coalition Health Information Exchange in the US won the prize for its collaborative-data sharing effort that offers real-time access to shared medical information.  Dr. Jeffrey Brenner who founded the Camden Coalition of Health Care Providers nine years ago, said “Sick people are getting better care. You don't have to repeat tests that have already been done, and you can make quicker decisions because you know what has happened recently, especially with patients who can't articulate the care they have gotten."

  3. A number of challenges have focused on development. In 2013, Orange Group and Sonatel partnered to make anonymous mobile phone data in Senegal open to researchers for the purpose of “development and welfare of the populations.” The first prize winner demonstrated the potential to use this mobile phone data as a proxy for energy needs and to build bottom-up demand models that can place priority on electrification of areas with scarce information on local activities. Also in 2013, the Gates’s Grand Challenges Explorations program, in partnership with Liquidnet for Good, awarded six nonprofit projects that aim to combine multiple datasets to help solve social problems. One winner, Open Humanitarian Initiative by NetHope, has built a tool to help humanitarian charities share their data more widely in real-time, which can help save more lives during disasters.

  4. Data2x has funded a series of projects on gender. The Big Data for Gender Challenge, an initiative of the UN Foundation and supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, launched tin 2017. The GovLab, in partnership with UNICEF, Universidad del Desarrollo, Telefónica R&D Centre, ISI Foundation, and DigitalGlobe, were among the winners of the Big Data for Gender Challenge for their project, which uses multiple data sources from different sectors to study gender and urban mobility in Chile, with the goal of addressing unequal access to urban transportation for women and girls. Another project, led by Dalberg Data Insights in partnership with with telecoms companies in Uganda, studied women’s mobile money usage patterns in order to make recommendations to further women’s financial inclusion in Uganda.

  5. In education, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge in the US awarded Providence Talks, which presents a unique approach to closing the education gap. Research has shown children in low-income households hear significantly fewer words each day than those in affluent ones. Using data gathered from a child’s auditory environment, information and coaching is provided to parents to increase literacy rates of children in lower socioeconomic strata. Pilot studies have shown that access to this information is powerful; parents presented with information on their child’s auditory environment increased their daily adult word count by 55 per cent.

The majority of data remains proprietary and untapped, limiting possibilities for transformational impact. Challenge prizes, while not a perfect solution, present one possible way in which philanthropies can inspire those with data to collaborate with charities, researchers, and governments who require data to solve complex problems.

If you’re interested in finding out more about SIX’s work on data, please contact or