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The Future Of Service Is Data

With more analytics about which organizations need help and which people are available, we could create a true marketplace for people looking to donate their time and skills.

Before I lose you, let me inspire you. Ami Dar, executive director of Idealist.org, painted this vision for me about a year ago:

A homeless shelter in Topeka, Kansas, desperately needs haircuts for its clients; a barber down the street would gladly give free haircuts. Unfortunately, neither knows the other exists. There are millions of good intentions floating around the world and an equal number of needs. Currently, there is no efficient way for them to find each other. In other words, the marketplace of pro bono service is broken.

This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

In the information age we live in, data makes the world go round. It makes nearly all of our experiences more personalized and delightful—for example, finding driving directions with the least amount of traffic, discovering the right piece of music or making a reservation at the perfect restaurant.

Data has the same potential for service. Data can help unveil social issues in a more immediate and accurate way. It can also connect people with ways they can do something, by surfacing opportunities they didn’t even know existed. In other words, data helps us better identify the demand and supply for service. Let me start with the demand side of data for service opportunities.

Ushahidi (the Swahili word for "testimony" or "witness") is a nonprofit technology company that has developed an online crisis-mapping tool. The software collects information, visualizes it, and generates real-time, interactive maps. They do this to report on wars, elections, famines, or just crime trends. During the Haiti earthquake, this tool analyzed text messages in real time to direct aid workers to where help was needed. The platform aggregates critical and timely information (or data), and makes it available on a platform that allows people to take action. The availability of this specific data, offered by people like you, literally saved lives.

What about the supply side of data for service? I believe that this is where the real opportunity lies for data to make a difference. Each of us are able to use our skills and experience to make an impact on the world, either as individuals or collaborating as a team to create crowd-sourced knowledge. There are many organizations aggregating data offered by individuals and connecting this information to needs, but one of my favorite is Sparked.com.

Sparked.com is the world’s first microvolunteering network and is a great example of how data can create more relevant and impactful service opportunities for individuals. Sparked.com sends challenges to you online that are targeted to your unique skill set and the causes about which you are passionate. The platform also allows you to join a community of other like-minded professionals when answering a challenge so you learn from others’ solutions. And one of the most magical parts of this network is that many of the challenges require less than 30 minutes of your time to answer and make an impact.

Data is everywhere and it is becoming organized in a way that gives us insights to the causes and solutions to a variety of social issues. The world also has a huge reservoir of human capital that is being organized in a way that highlights individuals’ knowledge and skills in a much more accessible way. We just need to create a better marketplace that matches the needs with the human capital, or as we like to say at LinkedIn, that connects the right talent with the right opportunity to have a social impact. We believe that this will be game changing for the field of service.

You actually can do something right now to contribute to the supply side of data for service. Last fall, LinkedIn added the Volunteer and Causes field to its member profile page. This was the most requested feature for LinkedIn profiles and is now available to our 150 million members around the world. Members can share with their professional networks volunteer experiences, causes they care about, and organizations they support. LinkedIn is putting a stake in the ground that social impact can and should be a part of everyone’s professional brand.

This is one step toward a vision of creating a more efficient way of inspiring every professional in the world to find an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the world.