Applying Data Science for Social Good Starts with Building Empathy

Special Guest Post
By: Jake Porway, Founder and Executive Director of DataKind

At DataKind, we are humbled by the thousands of data scientists worldwide that have reached out to us, ready to use their skills for the greater good. We’re equally impressed by the hundreds of social change organizations — nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises — eager to leverage data and advanced analytics to make greater impact.

With this ever-growing deluge of data and interest on both sides, you might think, “Great mission accomplished! Just throw all those eager data do-gooders into a room and unleash world-changing data science.”

Except that couldn’t be further from the truth.  All of these committed, talented people have likely never worked together. They speak totally different languages, and we don’t just mean programming languages.  Some people know APIs, others know SDGs.

Powerful collaborations don’t just happen – they are built on a strong foundation of empathy. That means that before we get excited about that logistic regression model we’re going to build, we need to learn each others’ language and find common ground to ensure we’re doing our best work.  In fact, we’ve found that finding problems can be harder than finding solutions.  Problem definition and scoping is not always obvious because it requires the combined knowledge of issue area experts and data scientists.  Collaboration and empathy are needed to bring these worlds together.

That’s why we’re excited to be part of Bloomberg’s Data for Good Exchange happening just ahead of Strata NYC on September 28th.

Until mind meld technology is fully operational, the best way we’ve found for diverse expertise and ideas to collide is through good old fashioned conversation. Barely a month goes by where there isn’t some kind of DataKind Meetup or event that brings together these data science and social sector experts so they can shake hands, share ideas, and get on a first name basis. With their humble cheese cube and hummus trays, these community events may seem like just a “nice to thing to do” to the untrained eye. However, they are actually a necessary and powerful step in the process.

Similarly, the Data for Good Exchange is an ideal space for this cross-sector pollination, aiming to connect data scientists, both academic and industry, with the NGO, public sector and nonprofit partners who can benefit from applied data science.

In fact, I’ll be leading a session on this very topic – how to bridge the gap and spark conversation between the data science and social change worlds. If that weren’t enough, NYC Media Lab is also giving away prizes and grants to students, faculty and university researchers to help support these collaborations to infinity and beyond.

While we don’t know if there will cheese cubes or hummus, we know the Data for Good Exchange will be the start of many beautiful friendships, the uniting of worlds and the best place for us to dream up new ways data science can be leveraged for good.

Let us know if you’ll be there!