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Doing Good With Data: Data Without Borders

The following guest post is by Jake Porway from Data Without Borders.

We live in a time of unprecedented access to data and computational power. The open data movement is quickly digitizing and making available tomes of information about the way our governments work, the way our cities move, and the patterns of our daily lives. Moreover we have unbridled access to cloud computing resources and new open source data analysis to make sense of this data, placing us in an information age unrivaled in the course of human history. If that last sentence sounds a little grandiose, it’s because I want to emphasize that this burst in distributed computing and data collection feels like such a radical shift in the way we live that it should, accordingly, have a fundamental impact on the health of our cities, the state of our environment, and the quality of our lives as a species. Yet, as Jeff Hammerbacher correctly noted recently in BusinessWeek, “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

When I moved back to New York this year, I was blown away by the enthusiasm of the data and development community here, who would show up in full force to startup weekends and hack days to develop amazing tools in under 48 hours. Yet many of the end results of these events would feel like incremental improvements to already privileged lives, like taxi finders or restaurant review applications. At the same time, there were plenty of non-profits and NGOs who were striving to improve the world, yet had no resources to help them interpret the sudden deluge of newly available data. It seemed natural to get these two groups together.

In order to close this widening gap between the non-profits with the data and the people who had the skills and time to make sense of it, I’m founding a group called Data Without Borders. The goal is to provide a platform where socially conscious data scientists can work closely with NGOs on data-related projects to help them gain insight and improve their practices. Data do-gooders and needy NGOs would work together on both short- and long-term projects, ranging from a weekend to provide a quick analysis to month- or year-long placements to tackle larger problems. So far we’ve received an enormous response, with hundreds of people signing up to help out on both sides and I’ve been incredibly inspired by the enthusiasm on both sides of the table in making this project succeed.

It bears noting that there are many wonderful groups currently providing pro bono software development for non-profits, but Data Without Borders was designed to uniquely focus on data. With the role of “data scientist” still very new to the industry and many NGOs unaware of the power of using data, there is a serious need to connect those with the skills for data collection, analysis, and visualization, to the groups that don’t yet have those resources. We strive not to bring new software tools to NGOs, but instead to bring insight, analysis, and new data skills to these underserved groups. The hope is that this will empower NGOs who already recognize the power of data as well as inspire those who hadn’t thought along those lines before.

A critical thrust of Data Without Borders’s mission is to involve NGOs closely in this process. We want to avoid the scenario where an organization throws its data over the wall, we play with it by ourselves, then give them back what we found. If we’re truly going to affect the way that organizations think about data, they need to be an integral part of the process. Similarly, analysts and scientists need to understand the problems in the organization and will work closely with them to understand their needs. We’re planning to work with critical members of each NGO, from field workers to CTOs, to ensure that everyone in the process has their voice heard.

We recognize that data problems within large organizations can take the form of small projects to larger institutional changes. As such, we are planning to provide both short-term and long-term involvements with groups. We’ll be organizing a set of “Hack Days” or “Datathons” in which we pair NGOs that have targeted data needs with groups of data engineers to work on those problems over the course of a weekend or two. We are also looking to provide mechanisms for people to use their free time after work and on weekends to assist on longer running projects. Ideally we’ll be able to sponsor data scientists to work full time for extended periods of time with organizations, effectively giving them a pro bono data contractor for a couple of months to a year.

Data Without Borders is integrally tied to the open data community, both in using and sharing data wherever possible. While many organizations may already have their own data they’ve collected, there are many more that could benefit from the spate of open data resources that are popping up every day. We plan to integrate open datasets about education, government, and the environment with these projects, supplementing NGOs’ own data with openly available resources. In addition, any data that NGOs are willing to open up could be vastly useful for understanding their practices and an opportunity for the broader community to help them assess their impact.

We really feel that this organization has the potential to bring huge changes to the NGO and non-profit world in the way data is viewed and used. Moreover, it will provide exciting problems to the data community and give big hearted scientists a way to help. We’re busily getting organized for our kickoff event but, in the meantime, you can sign for our e-mail list at or follow us on Twitter or on Facebook. If you’re a non-profit or NGO who works with data, a socially conscious hacker, or someone who’s just generally interested in helping the world through technology, come join us in launching this exciting initiative!

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