Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Big data for the greater good

Oct. 4, 2013, 9:01 a.m., Posted by Jake Porway

Knight Foundation supports DataKind to make better use of data science for social good. Below, Jake Porway, founder and executive director of DataKind, writes about opportunities to help mission-driven organizations benefit from the massive amounts of data being generated today. Above: "The Power of Data Science."

For a self-proclaimed “data geek” these are exciting times. Almost every interaction we have with each other and with our world now takes place digitally, and all of those interactions create data. From household data for the U.S. Census to the GPS data of the last place I bought milk, troves of publicly accessible data hold hidden stories of how we interact with our world. Moreover, the cost and ubiquity of technology makes accessing and processing that data easier every day. This data is an incredible—but frequently untapped—resource for organizations working day in and day out to make the world a better place.

Why would social impact, advocacy and mission-driven organizations not take advantage of such a powerful tool? Too often it’s because they just don’t have the skill set, the resources, or the internal culture to leverage what’s possible. On the other hand, we know from personal experience that there are thousands of data scientists in our communities passionate about applying their professional and technical skills outside of their day jobs to improve society.  We started DataKind in 2011 to bridge this gap, teaming high-performing data scientists with forward-thinking organizations to use data science to help better fulfill their missions.

It is now possible to find any number of day- and weekend-long events across the country, ranging from monthly music hackathons to environmental hack days, focused on building technological solutions quickly. There’s a lot to be said for hackathons and other short-term efforts for enriching the community; they’re also a lot of fun!  However, hackathons are not ideal for solving big problems such as reducing poverty, reforming politics or improving education. And, when they’re used to interpret data for social impact, they can be downright dangerous. To address intractable problems, it is imperative to have a more structured approach that can live beyond a weekend, with experts involved who will be sensitive about the data and the causes we are ultimately serving.

What we’re building at DataKind, with support from Knight Foundation, is a scalable framework, a way for non-governmental organizations and others to engage talented data scientists to help them better collect, analyze and visualize data. We want to establish deep relationships—to help organizations find a solution they can use along with an education in data science. 

While our current activities orbit around two core programs—DataDives and DataCorps—we see in front of us an uncharted world of opportunity to define and shape the way that data science integrates into the social sector, transforming the way that mission-driven organizations do business.

On tap this fall, we have a fantastic team of DataCorps ambassadors addressing a slate of fascinating, challenging problems for Give Directly, Medic Mobile, The Mission Continues and Thorn.  We have DataDives in the works and meet-ups happening in New York each month.  Whether you’re a data scientist who wants to do more with your skills or a visionary nonprofit that wants to unlock the power of your own data, get involved in our community and put your mark on the world.