We’ve become used to hearing how big data can help businesses gain an edge over their competitors.
By analysing the vast volumes of information created by organisations and individuals, companies can cut costs, target products and services more efficiently, and create new opportunities.
But why should big businesses be the only ones to gain from data analytics? One organisation that has sought to do a little more than just boost share prices for corporates is DataKind, which recently set up a Dublin chapter.
DataKind is a not-for-profit organisation with the lofty mission of using data science for social good. Established in New York in 2011 by Jake Porway, it comprises a community of data scientists who regularly team up with non-profit organisations to help them successfully mine information.
“As a data scientist, it was very clear to me that every company was quickly becoming a data company. The ubiquity of cellphone data, web traffic, open data sources, and more meant that data science wasn’t just for Wall Street and Silicon Valley, even small non-profits or government agencies could use industry’s techniques to make a bigger impact on the world.
"However, they had no way to afford data scientists, nor the literacy needed to engage with them," Porway told The Irish Times.
“I wondered what if we could connect talented data scientists with charities – organisations sitting on mountains of unexplored data and deep knowledge of critical social issues? Think of the impact bringing these groups of people together could have,” he said.
Porway, who's excited to see DataKind expanding beyond the United States, proudly reels off the successes achieved by the organisation so far.
These include developing a preliminary model for Amnesty International to identify high-risk situations and prioritise potential threats to enable them to co-ordinate efforts better.
The Dublin chapter, which was set up in August by data scientists Conor Duke and Jon Sedar, is hosting what it calls a "data dive" in the capital on Saturday and Sunday. The event will see volunteers and charities engaging in a weekend-long, marathon-style event to help them understand and improve their operations, marketing and strategy using data analysis, predictive modelling and visualisation.
Among the charities taking part are the education-focused body Suas, the independent think tank Tasc, and the Key, an English charity that works with young people.
“Many companies are using data science to make money and improve their products and services but, without a data scientist on staff or a LinkedIn-sized budget, many charities wonder how their organisations can take advantage of the current data revolution to transform their work,” said Duke.
“What is so exciting to us is that the same algorithms and techniques that companies use to boost profits can be used by non-profits to further their missions, from battling hunger to advocating for child well-being and more,” he said.
DataKind Dublin has already worked on an initial project with Suas, an educational development organisation that, among other things, provides direct learning support for eight to 14 year olds in disadvantaged communities to help improve their standard of literacy.
“For years, we’ve gathered data about our programmes and have understood it well enough to know that what we’re doing works.
"However, our partnership with DataKind Dublin has taken evaluation and impact measurement of our literacy support programme to another level," said Jessica Ryan, communications executive with the charity.
“Working with the organisation has allowed us to identify gaps in our data collection, improve the design of our programmes and demonstrate the impact our services have on those we serve,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tasc is hopeful that the forthcoming data dive will help it gain more by analysing available material.
"Part of Tasc's core focus is economic inequality in Ireland. By working with DataKind, Tasc hopes to be able to visualise a wide variety of data on inequality in Ireland in a way that makes it interesting and accessible for the general public, NGOs and policymakers," a spokesman for the organisation said.
Duke says DataKind is looking for volunteers to join the group. Not only will they get to use their skills in a positive way, but they’ll gain something themselves too, he says.
“Whether it is learning an exciting new ‘text-mining algorithm’, figuring out how to engage effectively with charities or managing a team, we view DataKind Dublin as a vehicle for people to channel their desire for a better society and learn something along the way.
“At our core, we have about 12-15 volunteers who give up their time on a weekly basis. Outside of that, there is another 40-50 people who contribute when and where they can.
“Overall we have an ‘active’ roster of about 260 members. We hold two to three hour meet-ups every three months where we discuss potential projects, results or the latest tools or techniques to use,” Duke said.
The organisation also hopes more charities will avail of its services.
"We have got an amazing response from not-for-profits so far, but we really feel we are only at the tip of the iceberg. We would really like to see more of the smaller Irish charities get in touch with us," said Duke. For more information: datakind.org/howitworks/datachapters/datakind-dub