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#312 When “Big Data” Misleads – “Equity” Must Matter More

June 19th, 2018

Richard Marker

“How can you say that?” he asked. “We are living in the very best of times. Just look at the data.”

This tweet was in response to my own tweeted handwringing at the precarious existential reality that was so apparent at an international symposium on the environment and refugees. Environmentalists, economists, civic leaders, religious leaders, to mention only a few, gathered in Greece to learn from one another. We were the guests of the Green Patriarch, His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who has been leading this conversation for almost three decades. This Symposium, entitled “A Greener Attika”, focused on the Aegean and the Mediterranean, but included data relevant to the entire planet.

Unless one willfully chooses to deny the overwhelming evidence [and we know that some in the USA choose to do exactly that!], we must acknowledge that the world as we know it is at great risk. There is a bit of disagreement about how far along that degradation is and what might be done to salvage as much as possible, but there is no disagreement about the bottom line of the crisis. The data from every possible vantage is incontrovertible, and it is big!

And, lest one miss the social implications of this environmental degradation, we will soon be faced with a refugee challenge that makes our current tragic numbers seem tame. Yes, I was distressed, angered, and energized all at the same time, and my brief tweet conveyed exactly that.

The above-mentioned retweeter cited a bit of datum that does in fact show that in one area the world has moved forward. He referred to the numbers of human beings who have risen above extreme poverty and are merely poor. The Gates’ have previously published this info and it is certainly a positive development. [Whether it reflects, as my respondent claims, the superiority of pure capitalism is a matter about which I am more than dubious.]

However, that is far from the whole story. The really big data shows that the number of countries where democracy is at risk is growing. The really big data shows that there are too many countries where the divide between the rich and the poor has reached treacherous levels. The really big data shows that civil society, as reflected by a free press, individual liberties, the rights to voluntarily gather, is under attack in too many places. And the really big data demonstrates that the prospects for emerging from poverty for the hundreds of millions who are in that situation is slim indeed.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the really big data about climate change, the melting of the polar caps, the desertification of many historically productive farming regions, the competition for potable water, and our stubborn insistence to live unsustainable life-styles.

I suspect that none of this is news to most of you although perhaps the interconnectedness of it all may be. In a future post, I will report on some of the responses and approaches, but all of them start from a sense of urgency. This may or may not be “big data”, but it most assuredly is “big equity.”

I would hope that none of us in the philanthropy world underestimate the important role we can play in keeping these systemic issues n our minds as we deal with the huge challenges to our field and the world we enable. And not to be misled by true but insufficient data that try to get us to avert our eyes from the true “equity” challenges.

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