More than 100 data scientists, nonprofit employees, and others gathered in Washington this month to put their skills to use with three charities that want to do a better job of harnessing the information they collect.
The problems participants tackled:
• How to create data visualizations that show the many ways that growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods influences children.
• Whether the financial data on charities’ informational tax returns can be used to create an early-warning system to alert nonprofits when they’re headed for trouble.
• What information to collect to measure an organization’s progress toward a big environmental goal.
The DC Datadive, which was organized by Data Without Borders with help from the American Express NGen Fellows Program at Independent Sector, follows gatherings in New York and San Francisco in the fall that each drew several dozen data professionals.
It’s an exciting time to be a data scientist, says Jake Porway, who started Data Without Borders last year: “Data is the thrumming, electrical beat that is starting to drive everything.”
Mr. Porway says he always wanted to use his expertise to advance social causes, but when he finished graduate school, he was disappointed that the jobs in his field were almost all on Wall Street or in computer programming. Yet at the same time he was energized by the vibrant data-science scene where everyone seemed to be working nights and weekends on “extracurricular” projects.
He remembers thinking, “Well, wait a second, what if we got all these people who were working with data but can only work on banking and software jobs, and got them together with these organizations that have lots of data or could benefit from data but don’t really have anyone to look at it.”
In time, Data Without Borders wants to expand beyond the weekend gatherings and match data professionals with charities for longer-term projects. The group’s ultimate goal, says Mr. Porway, is a fellowship program, not unlike Teach for America, in which data scientists could work in a nonprofit organization full time for a year.
“We want to live in a world where every organization thinks about data,” he says. “Because inherently one of the questions is going to be, How did you know the project was a success? And how are you going to be able to answer that question unless you have data?”
Watch here as Mr. Porway talks about Data Without Borders at PopTech, an annual ideas conference that brings together social entrepreneurs, scientists, technology experts, and others dedicated to social change.
Dig deeper: Learn how charities are using infographics and interactive data tools to attract new donors, raise awareness about their causes, spark activism, and improve their programs. Need inspiration to get your organization thinking? Check out The Chronicle’s gallery of nonprofit data visualizations.