National Geographic Emerging Explorer Jake Porway is connecting nonprofits with data scientists eager to use their skills with numbers and stats to help solve community and environmental problems.
Jake Porway is a matchmaker. He sees social change
organizations working hard to make the world a better place, collecting
mountains of data, but lacking skills and resources to understand and
use that wealth of information to advance their mission. He sees data
scientists with amazing skills and cutting- edge tools eager to use
their talent to accomplish something meaningful, yet cut off from
channels that would allow them to do so. He sees governments ready to
make unprecedented amounts of data open and available, but disconnected
from people who need it.
For Porway, it's a match waiting to
happen and exactly why he founded DataKind (formerly Data Without
Borders). "We're connecting nonprofits, NGOs, and other data-rich social
change organizations with data scientists willing to donate their time
and knowledge to solve social, environmental, and community problems,"
He compares it to striking oil. "Data is like a
bucket of crude oil. Potentially great, but only if someone knows how to
refine it (data scientists) and someone else has vehicles that will run
on it (the social sector)."
"My own job search was frustrating
because, while I wanted to use my skills for social good, my resume only
attracted attention from Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Nonprofits are
so resource constrained they rarely have data scientists on staff," he
says. "So I decided if I wanted a job that lets me use data to help the
world, I'd just have to create it. Turns out I wasn't alone. The
response to Data Without Borders has been incredible—from socially
conscious new grads hungry to make an impact to people who've spent 20
years in big corporations and need to feel their life is worth more."
own day job? The New York Times R & D Lab—a group building
prototypes of what news and information sharing will look like in a
future defined by social media, new technologies, and nonstop data flow.
He doesn't expect data experts to give up careers, salaries, and
lifestyles, but he knows what makes them tick. "These people spend their
spare time solving interesting problems for the love and fun of it.
Yes, they have day jobs, but they also have evenings and weekends."
is happy to help them fill those spare hours through weekend "DataDive"
events. Unlike typical hackathons, where data scientists and developers
huddle to create new software or apps, DataDive weekends also include
people who will actually use the analysis and visualizations being
"Social organizations come with specific problems and
frontline experience with real, on-the-ground situations," he explains.
"Data scientists work side by side with them as a collaborative team to
find practical solutions, beginning with basics like making sure surveys
are statistically valid, assessing how data is managed, and suggesting
how open data sources might be used."
Events held in San
Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago are proving the power
of connecting technical savvy with strong social missions. The United
Nations Global Pulse group arrived with aerial imagery of farms in
Africa, some of which had used fertilizer and some of which had not. Did
certain fields look greener because the fertilizer was helping, or
because they were photographed in full sun versus others shot in shadow?
New York Civil Liberties Union wanted to learn whether racial
discrimination was behind police stops and frisks. By organizing and
mapping a deluge of data, hot spots immediately appeared, highlighting
areas with high stop-and-frisk rates that couldn't be seen in the rows
of data before.
The Grameen Foundation brought data from a project
that gives crucial weather and crop pricing information to African
villages in tech-sparse areas. Analysis uncovered which investments in
infrastructure were worthwhile and which weren't. Porway reports, "They
were so impressed with the power of building tools and analyses around
their data that they restructured their organization to include a data
Mobilizing Health brought a basic question to the
weekend and left with a completely unexpected new diagnostic tool that
will allow earlier detection, diagnosis, and treatment of disease in
Microfinance Information Exchange attended a
DataDive to see whether gathering complex data they needed from a
multitude of websites was feasible. The nonprofit estimated collecting
and organizing the information would take their staff one year. Data
science volunteers at the event completed the bulk of the task in about
"DataDives have been more valuable than we ever could
have expected," says Porway. "Best of all, many participants have
continued working together long after the weekend events. That's the
world we want to engender—data scientists working permanently with
This initial success paves the way for
longer-term engagements such as month-long volunteer programs or ongoing
part-time contract work. The step after that, Porway hopes, will be
year-long paid fellowships creating full-time data science jobs within
the social sector. Ultimately, he wants to build a globally connected
network of dedicated experts who can be deployed at a moment's notice to
tackle any big data science task worldwide.
"Data is so dynamic;
organizations need full-time people devoted to monitoring information,
looking more deeply at the numbers, and using it to plan strategies for
the future," he stresses. In the short term, Data Without Borders is
identifying core needs that surface across most organizations. "We'd
like to build common, free, open-source tools that can help groups gain
insights from their data even if they don't have a data scientist on
"Often, tasks that are fairly straightforward for data
experts can be transformative for groups who are trying to feed the
poor, protect children, stop epidemics, and make the world a better
place in hundreds of ways," he says. "If every organization had access
to these skills, what kinds of questions could we all be answering?"