Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

Data for Change

Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

Data for Change

Article excerpt


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 easyto-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 alongby 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 opensource statistical computing group. …

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