2011-12-01

Co.Exist

Data Dissolves Borders: Tackling Problems One Data Point At A Time

From helping the ACLU track prejudice in NYPD tactics to changing how the UN monitors crises, the hackers behind Data Without Borders are bringing a hacker mentality to organizations working for change.

Data, like information, wants to be free. The corollary that most people forget to mention from Stewart Brand’s famous speech at the 1984 Hackers Conference is that information also wants to be expensive because it is so valuable. The same goes for data. Not only it is valuable, sometimes it is often tied up behind server walls or in inaccessible formats.

Data Without Borders is here to free it up for the common good. Founded by two data scientists, Jake Porway of The New York Times R&D Lab, and Drew Conway, a PhD candidate at New York University, the organization was founded this summer as a way to "match nonprofits in need of data analysis with freelance and pro bono data scientists who can work to help them with data collection, analysis, visualization, or decision support."

Today, they’re holding Data Dives and teaming up with nonprofits around the world to turn information into social change.

"I see a world where every social organization thinks about data and it would be as ridiculous to propose a project without proposing the data you would collect and how you would use it as it would be to propose a project without funding," says Porway, who recently presented at the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. "It’s in the DNA of the organizations."

We have a long way to go. Most nonprofit organizations lack a data strategy beyond entering numbers into Microsoft Excel; even fewer are thinking about ways data will enable them to accomplish their mission. But some are.

At a recent NY Data Dive this past October, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Microfinance Information Exchange (MIX), and UN Global Pulse arrived with a mission, big datasets, and a need to turn that into something practical. None left empty-handed.

Data geeks converging on the event turned the data around within 24 hours, producing the first draft of tools helping the ACLU visualize whether the 576,394 stop-and-frisks conducted by the New York Police in 2009 (up from 41,438 in 1990) revealed evidence of discrimination, allowed MIX to condense a year of work into a few days, and refined tools for UN Global Pulse to detect incipient crises (see our coverage here).

Data Without Borders emerged out of the founders’ dissatisfaction with hacker events that bought together some of the country’s most brilliant minds, and ended up churning out iPhone apps that shorten the wait at the coffee shops or locate parking spaces. Porway believed they could do better. "How do we tap this crush of latent energy and turn it into something more meaningful?" he asks.

For that, they needed organizations already fighting society’s social and economic problems. "We don’t treat these organizations as clients but as collaborators," says Conway. "It turns out they did need our help and people like us needed their help to look for interesting questions and apply our skills in ways that hadn’t been done before."

For now, Data Without Borders is evolving as opportunities and organizations present themselves. You can sign up here. Given the demand for smart data solutions to the world’s problems, it won’t be long until the movement gains global traction.

For Porway and Conway, it’s just a night’s work. "You pay the bills during the day, and you follow your passions at 4 in the morning," says Conway.

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