If you follow business or technology news, you've probably read about the massive amounts of data being collected, stored and analyzed by governments, social sites, corporations and academia. To put it in perspective, a 2012 TechCrunch article about Facebook's data says the social networking site "processes 2.5 billion pieces of content and 500+ terabytes of data each day." The term "Big Data" has become a popular buzzword for this flood of information. The article "The Age of Big Data" delves into the implications, one of which is that "decisions will increasingly be based on data and analysis rather than on experience and intuition," according to one MIT data expert. Another implication is there will be an ever-growing need for data scientists and analysts to help make sense of it all.
Nonprofits are also being impacted by this technological trend. In fact, Bill Gates has embraced measurement of data as part of his humanitarian work, saying in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal..." Others in the corporate world are also taking notice of the potential of data to affect positive social outcomes. "Harnessing big data to address the world's problems," written by a McKinsey & Company consultant, argues that data can not only enhance the private sector, but can also be harnessed to more effectively fight disasters as well as diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. And the tools are out there, as even the social site Pinterest has a page devoted to data visualization tools that nonprofits can use to share metrics with donors and supporters.
However, though the potential exists to improve lives with better collection and use of data, many organizations are unfortunately failing to recognize it. A 2010 PBS documentary titled Saving Philanthropy found that although the number of philanthropic organizations in the U.S. increased by 77% between 1995 and 2005, many nonprofits could provide no quantifiable evidence showing they were making people's lives better. As seen in the YouTube trailer, the filmmaker argues that if funding is tied to performance, many of the social problems we have today could be solved. Though the film was produced in the U.S., nonprofits in other countries also have problems with inefficiencies, as described in a report put out by the Australian government.
Even the McKinsey article mentions several obstacles that nonprofits must overcome to become more data driven, including data access, quality, compatibility and a large shortage of data talent. These problems are echoed in a report titled 2012 State of Nonprofit Data Report, which found that while some organizations were indeed data driven, many others were unfortunately not doing much with the data they were collecting. The internal factors most cited in this report were "collecting and the quality of data (27 percent of responses), expertise (24 percent), issues of time and prioritization (22 percent), and challenges with technology (23 percent)."
Zombal's Experiment with Data-driven Nonprofits
We at Zombal initiated our own experiment to see how we could help nonprofits tap into the expertise they needed to become more data driven. Specifically, we worked with Young Africa Live (YAL), a mobile web portal developed by the Praekelt Foundation for AIDS awareness and prevention. In fact, our first zomb for YAL was recently launched as way of enlisting Zombal's base of scientists and analysts to help solve some of the organization's data challenges. The zomb, "Improved measurement of behaviour change within the YAL community," sought advice on how YAL could improve its practices and monitor change in its user behavior over time. YAL was also seeking suggestions for improving its survey questions, online measurement and data collection.
Belinda Lewis, the product strategist at Praekelt who launched the zomb, acknowledges that in the past "there wasn't much emphasis placed on rigorous monitoring and evaluation" in the NGO space. "Because we work in the NGO space digitally we have an advantage in that we've always had tangible outputs and outcomes through which to assess our projects. We know that Young Africa Live has a user base of over a million, and we can measure the outcomes of our engagement with these users through polls and surveys like we do in our Annual Sex Survey. What we are now trying to do is to measure the actual impact of YAL and our other programs; are YAL users less likely to engage in sexually dangerous behaviours than their peers? are YAL users less likely to bully people with alternative sexual preferences than their peers? What is the measurable, real world impact of the program, and how efficient (in terms of time and costs) is it at driving these impacts?"
Ms. Lewis also agrees that nonprofits can't answer these questions without data scientists and technicians. Since YAL wasn't in a position to hire a full-time data expert, she decided to work with Zombal to find a solution. She says, "I'm sure that there are lots of local people with the necessary expertise, but finding them involves a lot of time-consuming networking and leg work. The benefits of partnering with a service like Zombal is not only that your pool of potential experts is much larger, because its no longer location dependent, but that its also actually easier to connect with these individuals through Zombal than it would be to identify and approach them at a conference or your local university."
So how did this first experiment with nonprofits turn out? We were pleasantly surprised by the results: six of our statisticians submited responses. One answer in particular impressed Ms. Lewis so much, she awarded the statistician, Alix Godfrey of the U.K., the bounty reward. As for Ms. Lewis's opinion of the role Zombal can play in filling the needs of other nonprofits, she says, the previously mentioned benefits "combined with the review system and bidding model, make Zombal a very valuable, cost effective resource for NGOs."
We asked Alix about what appealed to her about this project, and she replied, "I chose to pursue the project largely because I thought I would be able to provide a good answer and having looked at the answers that others had given I felt I could give a better reply. As well as this I thought the project was very worthwhile and therefore it was important to me that their survey is as good as it can be so they get decent results." She also mentioned that she found Zombal easy to use and the communication with YAL was good. We also asked her why she chose Zombal, and she answered, "I chose to use Zombal because I am a freelancer but the majority of freelance websites don't have the kind of projects that suit my skills...As I work from home the majority of the time it is good to have access to worldwide jobs where the employers know that you will be working remotely."
The Growing Demand for Data Specialists
As mentioned before, the exponential growth in data will require more and more scientists and analysts to help organizations use data to inform the decision process. The problem is that many predict the growth in data will outpace the supply of experts. A widely-cited report by McKinsey predicts a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 by 2018 in the U.S. alone. Some sources dispute these numbers, and time will tell how the marketplace will respond to the increased demand. However, the evidence suggests nonprofits can deliver meaningful and measurable outcomes by effectively using data to inform decision-making. If the scarcity of data professionals is being felt in the business world, services like Zombal may help nonprofits find the kind of talent they need to fulfill their missions, anywhere in the world.