How nonprofits are using data to improve lives

When we read about cool uses of data or it’s “big impact” we often hear about the corporate, business-based use cases. How a large conglomerate was able to increase their profit margins, or how a small business was able to generate hundreds of leads. And while these are certainly good use cases for data, they don’t exactly make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

A recent 2012 report from NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Network) which found that while 89% of the nonprofits surveyed tracked data about their finances, only 50% consistently tracked data on how their work affected the people it was designed to help. Despite the slow response of nonprofits to the data onslaught, a few trendsetters have discovered innovative ways to use the data they collect to improve lives. Here are a few of the best ones…

Giving Newborns a Better Start

Nurse-Family Partnerships is a national nonprofit that works with local agencies to send nurses to help low-income mothers cope with the challenges of raising their newborn baby. They pair poor, first-time mothers with family nurses that make biweekly home visits from the prenatal period until the baby is two years old. Every visit is meticulously documented and reported on. Altogether the organization tracks 2,000 different variables about each family.

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Using this data they can track the early warning signs of unhealthy behavior and council the mothers accordingly. For example, a cluster of underweight babies in a neighborhood or community may signal the need for more information about the importance of breastfeeding. Nurses are actively encouraged to use the data they collect to adapt the program to suit each individual client’s needs.

Battling Human Trafficking

Polaris is a non-profit organization working to eradicate human trafficking. They run a telephone  hotline that victims can call at any time to receive assistance, which led to over 72,000 telephone interactions between 2007 and 2012. Using this data, Polaris can analyze trends in human trafficking, from demographic information to local density of occurrences. Recently they released this information to the public in an effort to increase awareness of human trafficking incidents, they also outlined preventative measures that can be taken.

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Crowdsourcing the Cure for Cancer

Cancer Research UK (CRUK), a nonprofit dedicated to finding the cure for cancer, has collected terabytes of data on cancer cells that must be classified before they can be used for studies. This massive data set is far too large for CRUK to handle alone. So they created Cell Slider, a website that lets volunteers around the world categorize and analyze cancer cells. Already their volunteers have analyzed over 2,300,000 samples, significantly assisting in CRUK’s progress towards a cure.

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The site in turn generated useful data on who is interested in helping in cancer research, which allowed CRUK to run targeted campaigns for donations. They were also able to use the demographic data of interested individuals for insight into the success and relevance of further regional campaigns and initiatives.

Exposing Wealth Inequality

Oxfam is a leading global charity working to combat world poverty. In addition to their own internal data, Oxfam researchers collected data on the all 1400 entries in Forbes’ World’s Billionaires list. Their analysis revealed that Britain’s five richest families are worth more than the poorest 20% of the country. Armed with this fact they got the attention of national news media and politicians alike, leading to the introduction of legislation to cut down on Tax Avoidance. See how they did it.

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Cleaning up Cities

The City of Buffalo, NY has developed a unique approach to data to help them clean up at-risk areas of the city. By combining city level data such as 311 call information with data shared by the local police department, emergency response services and labor statistics, they can determine which neighborhoods are most in need of help, whether it be boarding up vacant houses, removing debris or filling potholes. The city also uses the data to target the highest need neighborhoods for “Operation Clean Sweep,” a daylong neighborhood cleanup and outreach program. During the day, volunteers collect additional resident data share it with organizations such as the Center for Employment Opportunities who can provide residents with additional support. The collaboration between local government and community partners helps increase the City of Buffalo’s effectiveness and prioritizes limited services to high-need residents. Read more.

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Startups for Good

It’s not just the established nonprofits that are using data for good, new startups have recently appeared on the market with the goal of helping nonprofits use their data effectively. Bayes Impact is a San Francisco-based nonprofit startup using data to help governments and other nonprofits tackle social problems. They started in 2014 working with cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, to improve police responses to crime and optimize ambulance response times. More recently, they’ve expanded to helping address neglected areas of social change like criminal justice, education and health. Their work covers everything from reducing prison overcrowding to improving academic outcomes in the inner city.

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Just Measure Something

Whether it’s assessing the impact of your efforts, targeting likely donors, identifying new opportunities or optimizing your aid; data can be a huge benefit for nonprofits. Many of them already collect gobs of data, and now that today’s tools for collecting, processing and analyzing that data have become cheaper and easier to use, there is no reason why nonprofits can’t take advantage of all that Big Data has to offer.

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