Being Kind with Data

Being Kind with Data

In honour of World Humanitarian Day, IoTUK interviewed Emma Prest, General Manager of DataKind UK, an organization which brings together volunteer data scientists with charities to tackle tough social issues.

 Five years ago, a data scientist named Jake Porway working in R&D for the New York Times founded DataKind in the United States after writing a fateful blog that went viral. While data science already plays a big role in our daily lives – from Netflix helping us find a good movie to Google Maps helping us find our destination – he couldn’t help but wonder, ‘Why aren’t we applying these same cutting-edge techniques to problems that matter?’

DataKind is all about using data science to help solve some of society’s toughest challenges. For example, Shooting Star Chase, a UK-based children’s hospice, knew 30,000 children in the UK were in need of hospice care but didn’t know how to find them. DataKind UK volunteers used the charity’s data along with  public data to locate children suffering from life-limiting diseases and helped them to streamline referral paths. DataKind has also worked with large organisations like Amnesty International. During a weekend event, volunteers used 25 years-worth of its Urgent Action Network text data to create an initial predictive model so the organization can more quickly identify and respond to human rights threats at risk of escalating.

What’s exciting to me is that the bulk of this cutting-edge work is done by volunteers.  We’ve tapped into this amazing appetite amongst the data scientist community looking to give back and contribute their skills. This is incredibly important because they are in high demand and expensive to hire, making it hard for the not-for-profit sector to access them.

While DataKind started in New York, it has since launched Chapters all around the world, from San Francisco to Singapore, with the UK being its first.

As part of our work at DataKind UK, we run regular DataDives, marathon-style events designed to help charities do initial data exploration and get answers to questions in a short amount of time. Even though DataDives themselves take place over a weekend, there are months of prep ahead to understand the needs of the organisation we are working with, staffing volunteer Data Ambassador team leaders and, of course, cleaning and anonymising their data in preparation for the dive.

Data Dive Bristol

Photo from a recent DataKindUK’s Data Dive in Bristol

We also do longer term DataCorps projects where we partner with an organisation over four to six months to build a more substantial solution like a predictive model that the organization will adopt to inform its decision making and ultimately make a greater impact.

No matter the length of the project, all of our engagements are structured to foster collaboration between the volunteer team and partner organisation. Here in the UK we have a thriving community of data scientists.

Why charities don’t invest in data

I believe one of the reasons charities don’t invest in data scientists and data analysis is because they are, understandably, focused on pouring all their efforts and money into delivering services and meeting their beneficiaries’ needs. It can be hard to get unrestricted funding, which means charities can’t make the same investments in infrastructure or so-called “overhead” that most companies take for granted. Having said that, because of funder requirements there is a growing emphasis on having to demonstrate their impact and, most have started collecting data, with some doing really sophisticated data analysis.

A big part of what we do at DataKind UK is helping organisations to understand the value of their data. One of the reasons that they don’t prioritise data, is because they don’t understand how powerful it can be in their work. We talk to dozens of charities every month about what they could do with their data and try to show them its true potential.

What DataKind aims to do is bridge the divide by helping these organisations access top data science talent to advance their missions. Make no mistake – the volunteers get just as much out of the experience as the charities. We wouldn’t exist without these collaborations so are truly grateful for the generosity of our volunteers!

Get Involved with DataKind UK!

If you’re a data scientist interested in giving back or a charity looking to see how data science can support your work, reach out to to learn more or sign up for the Meetup to attend an upcoming event.

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Emma Prest
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