Big Data for Climate Action or Climate Action for Big Data?

Maria Isabel Espinoza, Rutgers University
Melissa Aronczyk, Rutgers University

In recent years, private companies have increasingly shared their data to track and analyze social and environmental problems. Under the banners of “data for good,” “data for development,” and “data philanthropy,” a wide array of IT companies have started to partner with NGOs, development agencies, and inter-governmental organizations to leverage the power of big data for the public good. Inspired by the principles of shared value and philanthrocapitalism, companies are joining the “data for good” movement, aligning their business models to the achievement of the SDGs, as they view social problems as business opportunities. While these initiatives have raised questions regarding data privacy, and the future of CSR and philanthropy, there is very little critical examination of how the use of big data technologies to address social and environmental problems represent a new way of conceiving what is made to count as a problem. This paper offers a unique glimpse into why and how the promotion of big data for sustainable development and environmental action has evolved, and how “climate action” is presented to multiple audiences as a solvable information problem. We analyze fifteen interviews with experts on the use of big data for good working at intergovernmental organizations, nonprofits, tech companies, consulting firms, and research universities. We argue that the private sector’s liberal framing of the climate crisis as a data problem confines climate action to the private realm while aiming to protect the current economic order that deepens the climate crisis.

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 Presented in Session 224. Expertise IV: The Politics of Data