Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

The Potential Of Data And Human Capital To Change The World

One of the side-effects of the digital age is the generation of massive amounts of data. Can we do more with all that information than simply be better at selling people more stuff?

Now, more than ever before, we have access to mounds of data and the ability to connect millions of people to do something about it. If we can connect the right minds with the most relevant data, together we can tackle global problems that previously seemed intractable. A few thoughts from Silicon Valley on how to do that.

Find those right minds

When you build your team, act as if the world is your oyster. Find the right person who has the talent, network, and passion to help you succeed. Talent has become a focus in Silicon Valley and cited as the primary differentiator between competitors. As business author Jim Collins says, "the Who" is what matters most. One of the reasons that talent matters most is the network that the talent represents. When you hire someone, you are also getting access to the resources they represent in their network. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are masters at this. Reid Hoffman recognized this and founded LinkedIn on this very premise.

Be maniacal about getting relevant data

Examine both how it can better inform the problem you are solving as well as measure your impact. Technology has made data much more accessible. Technology has also enabled data to be crowdsourced, making it cheaper to collect. No longer do you have to employ people to collect information; now you can crowdsource it. One example that combines crowdsourcing data with educating kids about science is Project Noah. It has created a platform that uses "citizen scientists" to explore and document wildlife. They currently have a mission to collect photos of dragonflies and damselflies, which serves the dual purpose of aggregating hard-to-find data and inspiring young scientists. Fortunately, thought leaders are recognizing the value of data and creating resources to aggregate it. For example, Markets for Good is an initiative to discover how the social sector can better use and share information to improve outcomes and change lives. They believe that by upgrading the social sector infrastructure, we can take advantage of knowledge and data that is often disconnected and siloed.

DataKind is doing just that. They recently launched their first project in partnership with DC Action for Children. They created an interactive tool for assessing child well-being in Washington, D.C., allowing child advocates, policymakers, and engaged citizens to assess the ways in which neighborhoods affect the health and security of children in the district. As DataKind eloquently states, "Data has the potential to make hidden relationships crystal clear, to be a common language between people who might never have spoken, to inspire collaboration, to offer metrics for decision making, and to turn seemingly unrelated ideas into powerful insights that can solve the most complex and intractable problems we face."

Connect the right minds to the right opportunities

Technology has made it more efficient to connect all types of resources, especially human capital, to opportunities where they can make a social impact. The challenge is figuring out how to scale these "marketplaces for good."

LinkedIn recently launched Board Member Connect. This program makes it easier for nonprofit leaders to find the right quality professionals to join their board by leveraging their connections on LinkedIn. It is estimated that each year over 2 million nonprofit board seats need filling. Fortunately 78% of professionals would like to join a board. This program will help make the board-matching marketplace more efficient and scalable. connects professionals to microvolunteering opportunities based on the members’ interests and knowledge. In less than 30 minutes, you can make a specific impact on a nonprofit leveraging your unique skills. Finally, the Taproot Foundation enables business professionals to donate their skills to help nonprofits with needs such as marketing, human resources, and strategy management. Each of these programs has enormous potential, but we need to work together to find opportunities for scale. The supply of professionals willing to help and the demand for their unique skills exists—we just have to create more efficient marketplaces to make those connections.

However, even data has its limitations, and a certain type of human capital—human touch—does not scale. I recently heard Paul Farmer, founder of Partners In Health, talk about his impact. His model of community-based health care only works because there are humans talking to humans, understanding their unique needs. Data can be revealing but it never tells the whole story. And, in the end, there is nothing that can replace the human touch.