Why saving the world with data means finding your inner CEO

If there’s one big problem with non-profit organizations, it’s this: they think too much like non-profit organizations and not enough like corporations. Helping people at the individual level and tackling large causes one issue at a time are great and necessary activities, but spending too many resources down in the weeds sometimes results in organizations not being able to see the entire swamp around them. Getting smarter about data analysis could help them get better at seeing the bigger picture.

If there’s one thing smart businesses know, it’s how to keep their eyes on the prize. They analyze everything they do against metrics — often called key performance indicators, or KPIs — that are in theory directly relevant to the company’s overall goals. Once a KPI has been established, it’s easier to assess the value of individual projects, features and other efforts in terms of how much they’re helping or hurting the overall business. KPIs also serve as a nice PR tool, as they give companies a chance to quantify non-bottom-line aspects of the business that the rest of the world can point to when assessing a company’s situation.

Think of things like daily active users for online gaming companies, eBay’s miles-per-gallon metrics for IT operations, or revenue per user at Facebook. DAUs up at Zynga? Hooray! Kilowatt hours per transaction up at eBay? Maybe its solar efforts aren’t paying off. You get the picture.

It’s this disparity in thinking between non-profits and corporations that the SumAll Foundation is trying to address. The foundation — a non-profit entity that’s part of cloud-analytics startup SumAll and funded with a portion of the company’s venture capital investment — is gathering data on specific issues and trying to raise awareness of the problems and highlight some possible solutions. In the process, it hopes to help the non-profits in those spaces understand why they should use data and how they can make the best use of it.

How do you quantify suffering?

KPIs are a critical part of foundation’s efforts. To non-profits, SumAll CEO Dane Atkinson said, helping one person might be a victory, but data can help them rally them around helping more people. It can be tricky to disassociate this type of thinking from revenue and try to quantify KPIs in different areas, SumAll Foundation’s Stefan Heeke added, but the results can be amazing when it’s done right.

In its first data-driven project on human trafficking, for example, SumAll settled upon cost-per-slave. This helped set a baseline for comparisons among countries and industries, as well as providing a benchmark to measure improvement against. And, Atkinson noted, the metric in this case is something that should resonate with people who take the time to read the entire infographic the foundation released:  “You can buy a human for cheaper than you can buy a cow.”

A snippet of the foundation's slavery infographic.

A snippet of the foundation’s slavery infographic.

However, you can’t develop a meaningful KPI like cost-per-slave until you actually amass some good data and know what you’re working with. Atkinson called the current state of information on slavery “a data wreck,” noting that many organizations were using data from a graduate student’s report in order to estimate the number of slaves currently in the United States. The SumAll Foundation spent about 300 man-hours trying to track down quality data both within non-profit organizations and elsewhere and then cross-analyzing it to get accurate numbers.

This actually highlights another area where non-profits could use help: learning to leverage the data they do have in meaningful ways both internally and across the non-profit ecosystem. As it stands now, Atkinson said, the non-profit organizations he’s seen have been pretty bad at using the data collect in new or creative ways within their own walls, and even worse at sharing their data with other organizations fighting for similar causes.

You’re safe in assuming, then, that many non-profits aren’t even in a position to start thinking about big data techniques such as analyzing their data against external sources. However, Heeke said, this type of creative data sourcing is an important step when you’re trying to develop the most-relevant KPIs. Census data could be used to add color to a list of addresses, he explained, or social media or other web data could be valuable for detecting popular sentiment about particular issues or perhaps even detecting instances of an activity that’s difficult to track by conventional means.

Already, there are at least a handful of examples of how using these new types of data might help non-profits get a broader view of the problems they’re trying to solve. We’ve covered a university study that uncovered trends in bullying by analyzing tweets, as well as Google Flu Trends and Flu Near You as methods for crowdsourcing the intensity of flu season. Last week, news broke of Hatebase, a new project from the Sentinel Project that aims to crowdsource instances of hate speech in order to detect future instances of genocide.

More issues, more techniques, more results

Right now, the SumAll Foundation’s strategy is to put its own resources to bear on issues — future endeavors include the effects of social engagement on local theaters, the online behavior of pedophiles and something on the Syrian crisis — and share that data and some of the strategies with relevant organizations. And although an infographic was the tool of choice for the first project on slavery, Heeke said he’d like to do dashboards for issues where there’s frequent updates to the data, as well more calls to action such as petitions, donations and email-your-congressperson campaigns. Hopefully, he added, the non-profits the SumAll Foundation is working with will get inspired and start rethinking their approaches to data, as well.

The foundation’s efforts are already helping spur some change. SumAll’s Korey Lee said that non-profits working with government agencies to prosecute human traffickers are having an easier time convincing authorities to act because they’re able to put a price on human freedom within those countries. Additionally, the foundation found that many people enter into indentured servitude as a way to pay back debts, which suggests microloans might be an effective way for anyone donating money to make the most of their resources. Looking into the future, Heeke suggested the organization’s research into pedophilia might inspire gatekeeper institutions (e.g., Google, in this case) to take preemptive actions against certain telltale behaviors.

As laudable as the SumAll Foundation’s mission is, though, one organization can only do so much. This is why I wrote recently about the need for a data democracy in which everyone has the means to access and analyze, at least at a base level, the data that’s important to them or their causes. To the extent that data can help quantify and solve problems such as slavery, online predation or even climate change, anything that can help bring the people, data and technology together is a good thing.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Goran Bogicevic.