Thursday, September 29, 2011

Data Without Borders: Data can be a burden if it is not set free!

Wikipedia describes philanthropy etymologically means "the love of  humanity"— love in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, or enhancing. Historically, philanthropy has always been associated with giving generous donations of money. It will continue to be associated with giving generous donations but some professionals can make bigger impact by donating their skill set than money. Yes, I am talking about the skill set of data science! Data science is relatively a newly coined term and probably originated from data geeks working on hard data problems in the companies like Linkedin, Facebook and other technology companies who needed these experts to make sense and insights from the vast amount of data being produced everyday. Data Without Borders, a newly founded organization, seeks to match non-profits in need of data analysis with freelance and pro bono data scientists who can work to help them with data collection, analysis, visualization, or decision support. The concept is brilliant and makes sense!

There are various initiatives out there where technology is being leveraged creatively to help the non-profit organizations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recently funded a new digital-media hub call The hub uses semantic technology to create a platform that combines the video sharing power of YouTube with the open information of Wikipedia and the mission of your favorite advocacy organization. I had written about it in more detail in one of my posts titled - Philanthropy goes Semantic.  Ushahidi, initially started as a simple web site to map reports of violence in Kenya, is another non-profit tech company that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualizing and interactive mapping. To my knowledge, Hans Rosling, a medical doctor and a statistician with decades of work studying outbreaks in Africa, is probably the first data science philanthropist. He co-founded Gapminder foundation which developed the Trendalyzer software, acquired by Google, that converts international statistics into moving, interactive graphics. His TED presentation about his best stats you have ever seen is worth watching.

The genesis of the idea of "Data without Borders" is to match the NGOs, who are sitting on lots of data with nobody to look at because of  resource and budget constraints, with data scientists who have the energy, time and passion to make sense of this data. Timing of this initiative couldn't be better because data scientists can now have a common and noble cause to rally behind! It is the beginning of a powerful vision but it will surely have its own challenges.  Having some experience with an NGO myself, I can say that sustaining the enthusiasm and commitment of data scientist for a long-term can be challenging. We are all aware that data scientists are going to be one of the most sought after, busiest and highly paid professionals in the next decade! So I will go for a good data scientist with more commitment over a rock star data scientist in this context. Also, a weekend of data hackathon in this context will probably won't be enough because data Science is an iterative process and will require an ongoing engagement. It is still not clear to me that why there are not initiatives like open government data in case of NGOs to build powerful data mashups. I am aware of new standards like IATI but its more about aid spending by governments. In this context, I believe that too much data can be a burden if it is not set free and used effectively. Ideally, in case of NGOs, open data shouldn't have political or privacy barriers. In the end, the co-founders of "Data without Borders" will need all possible support, structure and maybe funding, to be successful in their mission. Winston Churchill, rightly said, "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."

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