Round up a roomful of statisticians and technologists to dive into data for a weekend and intriguing things can happen. An opaque spreadsheet about traffic stops in New York City, for instance, morphs into an easy-to- read map of potential racial profiling hot spots.
“Working quickly can be an impressive trick, but the real value is when organizations start to see what you can do with data. Every organization needs data in its DNA,” says Jake Porway, co-founder of Data Without Borders (DWB).
Since its launch in mid-2011, DWB has demonstrated not only the value of bringing data science to social change organizations, but also the willingness of technical experts to donate their time to good causes. Porway, with a PhD in statistics and a day job in The New York Times R&D Lab, started DWB to create more meaningful volunteer outlets for people who share his credentials. Weekend hackathons didn’t “scratch the itch,” he says. “Those events generate a lot of excitement, but the products coming out of them tend to be things like new apps for restaurant reviews.”
Meanwhile, NGOs lag behind the for-profit world in harnessing data and using analytical tools to make better decisions. “Most nonprofits don’t have the resources to bring this expertise in-house,” says Lucy Bernholz, visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. “But nonprofits have tons of data. They are a critical part of our collective data ecosystem.”
Porway launched DWB with a blog post that went viral, helped along by tech guru Tim O’Reilly, among others. “All of a sudden, organizations were flooding my inbox and data scientists were lining up to get involved,” he says.
DWB co-founder Drew Conway says he’s typical of those attracted to the new organization. A graduate student at New York University, he also runs an open source statistical computing group. “There are a lot of us who pay the bills with our day jobs, then work on what’s meaningful at 4 a.m.,” he says.
At one of DWB’s first events, Conway served in the role of “data ambassador” for a UN initiative called Global Pulse. In an effort to detect world problems more rapidly, Global Pulse conducted a large-scale mobile survey and wanted help analyzing results. “We helped them visualize the data to get to a more granular level of understanding,” Conway explains. Results were later shared with the UN General Assembly, leaving DWB “feeling like a proud parent,” Porway says.
That wasn’t the only outcome. DWB volunteers also brought “a more dispassionate view” to their analysis of UN data, Conway says. He pointed out the limitations of a survey that asks people to opt in, in exchange for mobile minutes. “That doesn’t accurately take the mood of a billion people. You need to understand the limits when you talk about data.”
Getting organizations to ask better questions is a likely outcome of DWB’s efforts. “Questions never stop coming when you start looking at data,” Porway says. Turning raw numbers into visual representations, for instance, “helps you understand connections much more quickly. But visualization is really the beginning point,” he says. “It’s where you can begin to compare things in an otherwise opaque mist of numbers.”
During 2012, DWB plans to continue hosting weekend data dives in a handful of cities while also embarking on longer-term projects with nonprofit partners.
Bernholz, who serves as an DWB advisor, says the organization “has tremendous potential. The successes they have with early adopters will send a strong signal throughout the sector that data matter, that nonprofits have data, and that they can improve their own work and their communities by learning how to share it, use it, and put it to work.”