Jake Porway wants to turn his network of scientists into a league of information champions
This article was taken from the June 2013 issue of Wired magazine.
Last January, Refugees United, an organisation that connects refugees with their loved ones, partnered with DataKind, a New York-based community of data scientists. “Like many NGOs, Refugees United has a lot of data,” says Jake Porway, founder and executive director of DataKind. As Wired reported in 02.11, refugees log in and post descriptions of family and friends and search for them on the Refugees United site. DataKind’s role is to help to analyse that data. “For instance, we’re trying to get the system to indicate to a refugee what the probability may be of them finding their family in a certain region. That would be a big step.”
Before founding DataKind, Porway, now 30, worked for the R&D lab at The New York Times. “In 2010, we had the big-data boom,” he says. “But the things that people would do with it seemed so frivolous — they would build apps to help them park their car or find a local bar. I just thought, ‘This is crazy, we need to do something more.'” Realising that NGOs were also having their own big-data moment, in June 2011 Porway wrote a blog post calling on New York’s data scientists to create a league of experts to work on social problems. “By the end of the week, it had gone viral,” he says. “I think it was when the White House called that I realised there was something there.”
DataKind started with weekend hackathons and is now partnering with influential non-profits such as Grameen Foundation, the United Nations’ Global Pulse and groups including DC Action for Children (see below), with volunteer data-scientists working side by side with the organisations. “Non-profits don’t know what they don’t know,” says Porway. “They don’t know what’s even possible with data. I have this vision of a global network of data scientists rushing in from around the world, any time they are needed for some humanitarian cause or crisis.”
DataKind in action around the world
New York Civil Liberties Union
The New York police are required to record data on anyone stopped under their “stop and frisk” policy. Working with the New York Civil Liberties Union, DataKind’s data scientists were able to examine these records to reveal which areas had a disproportionately high number of cases involving black people.
Grameen Foundation hires “community knowledge workers” to offer farmers in Uganda a mobile-phone service that provides useful information. DataKind helped the foundation to evaluate the workers’ performance and come up with ideas on how to increase their impact.
United Nations’ Global Pulse
DataKind worked with the United Nations’ Global Pulse, a group that tracks data generated by the UN around the world, to visualise a mobile, global survey tracking its respondent’s wellbeing. DataKind produced a series of maps pertaining to specific questions. The UN was so impressed that it took the results to the General Assembly.