Data in service for others
By Vanessa Small,
It was 3 a.m. and there was still work to be done. Or maybe it always feels that way to anyone working in the world of algorithms and code. A group of data experts — some from government agencies, others from online media — had been hacking away by the glow of their laptops for the past 18 hours. Only this time it wasn’t building digital graphics for the Education Department or analyzing poverty data for the Census Bureau.
They were working for nonprofits that could not afford their services.
The 36-hour hackathon, held last March in the District, was organized by the recently incorporated nonprofit DataKind that looks to match nonprofits with data experts to help improve the work of charities.
By the end of the night, one child advocacy nonprofit turned a spreadsheet of data into an interactive map that shows the well-being of children by neighborhood in the District. An environmental foundation learned to use Google analytics and other software tools to understand the effectiveness of its national volunteer event. An organization that provides financial reports for charities discovered that it could not construct a model that forecasts the success or failure of a nonprofit strictly based on financial indicators.
These “DataDives,” as DataKind calls them, are responses to a big data movement that is forcing grantmakers and nonprofits to consider investing in people who can make sense of the numbers to improve operations.
“The ability to collect numerical data is so common that any hopes the nonprofit or philanthropic realm had of being immune are gone,” said Lucy Bernholz, managing director at Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy consulting firm.
Nonprofit leader HyeSook Chung knows she isn’t immune. As the executive director of a child advocacy organization, D.C. Action for Children, Chung was eager to apply for the DataDive with hopes of fixing a recurring problem with the reports on the well-being of children it released: No one was using them.
She discovered that a more interactive approach was needed.
“We wanted the data to come alive,” but no one on the staff had the necessary expertise, Chung said.
When she received an e-mail from a foundation announcing a DataDive coming to the District, she applied, and her nonprofit was selected as one of three to participate.
Nearly 120 data experts, who heard about the event through social media or colleagues, showed up, laptops in tow, to tackle the issues.
D.C. Action for Children “had all this interesting data, but it was just rows on a column,” said Drew Conway, co-founder of DataKind. “They didn’t know how to tell the story.”
By the end of the event, the data experts, some from The Washington Post’s technology team, created an online map in which child welfare statistics pop up as when viewers roll their cursors over various neighborhoods in the District.
“Everyone talks about the stereotypes of the wards, but this map shows that kids aren’t thriving because the neighborhoods aren’t thriving,” Chung said. “I can’t put a dollar amount on the brains we inherited in those 36 hours. They are like our lost soul partners.”
The Annie E. Casey Foundation awarded D.C. Action for Children with a $25,000 grant to enhance the map further, with plans to make it publicly accessible in November. Chung said she hopes to raise more money to hire a full-time data expert.
She and the data team from the hackathon now organize happy hours each month to socialize.
“I am getting into this data world, and I’m all for it,” Chung said.