Want to boost social impact? SXSW speaker says: use data.

Consider online privacy policies; reading them illuminates ways a company can gather, and often profit from, a user’s information. But is it possible that similar data-collection techniques could also be used to improve the world? 

“Data is the fuel that can drive some of our greatest dreams,” according to Jake Porway, Founder and Executive Director of DataKind. During his South by Southwest Conference and Festivals (SXSW) 2019 presentation, Do Good Data Science: Scoping Projects for Impact, Porway not only described how to use data science for social good, he spoke of ways nonprofits could access these solutions.

Porway showed a video of a “racist soap dispenser,” which responded to light skin to dispense soap, but did not do the same for dark skin. This was an example of how a better use of data science could have created a more equitable environment.

When one is problem-solving, what are the important things to remember about data? Porway suggested that:

  • Finding problems can be harder than finding solutions.
  • Your results are only as good as your data.
  • Good data science follows good design.
  • Your system will optimize for what you tell it to; and nothing else.
  • Data for good must mean data for all.

But public restrooms are not the only places that could be improved with better data usage. Applications could be developed by mission-driven organizations to solve education, health and environmental problems.  But one big hurdle is that most nonprofits don’t have the resources to access and leverage crucial data.

Porway’s solution is DataKind, a nonprofit organization that bridges the gaps between those who have data science resources and those who can use them. DataKind connects pro bono data science innovation teams with social change organizations to create data solutions to social problems.  Making these connections is key, as is ensuring everyone has a seat at the table.

According to Porway, “the only way data science is going to change the world is if we are all involved in the conversation.”

SXSW 2019 – Austin, Texas

Session: Do Good Data Science: Scoping Projects for Impact

Date: March 8, 2019

Track: Social & Global Impact presented by The Rockefeller Foundation

Image: S. Erler

About Susannah Erler 7 Articles
Susannah Erler is Interim Director of the Texas Grants Resource Center and Director of Greater Good Strategies – Nonprofit Consulting.

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