Big Data & Analytics Heroes

Jake Porway

Founder and Executive Director of DataKind

Jake Porway, founder and executive director of DataKind and this week’s Big Data & Analytics Hero, shares that they’ve found that "cross-sector collaborations between data scientists, managers, designers, foundations, nonprofits and more are critical for really making lasting change.” When we all come together and lock elbows we can use data to really make a difference. 

How can big data combined with analytics improve the world we live in in 5 to 10 years?

There are simply untold opportunities to use data and analytics to improve our world. As the founder and executive director of DataKind (a nonprofit tackling the world’s toughest challenges through data science) I get to see socially conscious data scientists and visionary nonprofits using data in a myriad of exciting, exotic and philanthropic ways every day to make the world a better place.

One of the reasons big data and analytics can improve the world now is that we’re entering a new era of data ubiquity. Just as the 1990’s saw computing spread to new non-technical disciplines, every field today is having its "data moment," making any nonprofit with a mobile phone program just as much a "data" company as a tech startup. Even if a nonprofit isn’t collecting data itself, publicly available government data like the U.S. Census or social media data from Twitter and Facebook could inform their work or help them better advocate for their stakeholders. In fact, the same algorithms and techniques that companies use to boost profits can be leveraged by nonprofits to further their missions, from battling hunger to advocating for child well-being and more.

There’s also one other really key ingredient that we see At DataKind for creating world change through data: people. They are the true Big Data Heroes. Many people still view data and data science as “magic” or something wielded by “techies,” but we’ve found that cross-sector collaborations between data scientists, managers, designers, foundations, nonprofits and more are critical for really making lasting change. We’re lucky to have worked through our many diverse Chapters around the world and DataKind’s volunteer network to test and hone new ways of forming data-driven teams for social change. I’m constantly blown away by the passion and dedication these data professionals have to use their skills to give back. I envision a day in which pro bono is just as much a part of the data science profession as it is for pro bono law.

Bringing together interesting data, analytics and the right mix of people with both the data science and issue area expertise to breathe life into the 0s and 1s—now that’s a winning combination to improve the world.

What "gold nuggets" have you uncovered using big data and analytics?

DataKind has already completed over 30 projects with inspiring changemakers around the globe that have all had great “gold nugget” findings, so it’s hard to pick just one. For example, we worked with Amnesty International to see how their 25 years of data from their Urgent Action Network could be used to better predict future human rights violations. We also used mapping technology and open government data to improve the work of child wellbeing advocacy organization DC Action for Children, who is now using that tool to inform policy in the district. In each case, the insights and efficiencies gained from using data science has helped transform the work of nonprofits large and small across a wide variety of issue areas.

In fact, one of our current long term projects is with a fantastic organization called Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 text line available nationwide that connects teens in crisis to trained specialists. Their project will leverage Crisis Text Line’s extensive data from more than four million messages between teens and specialists to design a system to route teens more quickly to the right kind of support they personally need. This is a follow up project to one we completed last year that helped Crisis Text Line improve a key survey to gather even more critical data on teen’s interactions that is now helping to inform their current project with us. It may sound grandiose or fluffy to say it, but data can potentially help save lives.

For those looking for more stories of all the ways data science can be used to change the world, we have all of our case studies online featuring the work of our amazing volunteers.

What is the market still missing for big data and ­analytics to really deliver ROI?

Data literacy is by far the biggest gap to delivering ROI, whether your return is profit or social impact. We’ve made great strides in making data more available and accessible through APIs, distributed databases and new big data technologies. However, many organizations still lack an understanding of how that data can be harnessed for insights and how that fits in with their business process. Additionally, the skills gap looms large. There are simply too few people with the combination of computing and statistical skills to employ data science effectively in all the places it is needed. At DataKind we are actively committed to filling the skills and literacy gaps for social organizations, but I think the market overall is going to be struggling with these challenges to delivering results from data science for the next few years, at least.


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