Training one million purpose-driven data practitioners by 2032 is a goal that cannot be achieved alone. That’s why collaboration and leveraging the power of partnerships are at the heart of data.org’s focus on capacity development through the Capacity Accelerator Network (CAN).
Despite rapid growth in the field of data for social impact (DSI), only limited academic courses, training, and leadership programs are available worldwide. Add to this a persistent workforce shortage, with equally persistent barriers that exclude women, minorities, and other marginalized groups, and significant gaps emerge in the DSI talent pipeline.
To address these gaps, CAN is creating a global ecosystem of academic and training partners to help build a diverse DSI workforce. And to deliver on our commitment to diversity, we must engage a similarly diverse network of partners — partners that span geographies, pedagogies, learning modalities, and more.
Finding the Fit
When data.org received $6.8M USD from Wellcome in the fall of 2022 to drive capacity development for climate and health, including the launch of a new Data Capacity Accelerator in India, we knew the immensity of the opportunity and the challenge.
The Accelerator is designed to train data practitioners on the front lines of the climate crisis to advance solutions to climate-related human health issues — an urgent challenge that also requires an urgent timeline. We needed to identify experienced academic partners that could stand up and launch fully-fledged training programs by August 2023.
With more than 1,000 universities in India, identifying institutions with subject-matter expertise in data capacity to address both health and climate proved daunting. Plus, the varied needs of a broad set of learners meant finding a mix of public and private universities covering a wide geographic footprint and offering online, in-person, and hybrid learning opportunities.
Our secondary research surfaced about 50 data science programs run by various schools, with most focusing on preparing learners for the private sector. The lack of interdisciplinarity and experiential learning exposure in how data science is taught in most academic settings today was striking. Critical to our vision of a DSI program focusing on climate and health, were interdisciplinarity, IDEA, and exemplifying pathways in DSI careers. It was important to engage several departments within a university that often deliver programs in silos and nudge them to reimagine data science curriculum, pedagogy, and learning outcomes.
As we continued our research, we also grappled with questions around our own unconscious biases and the threat of overlooking lesser-known but equally qualified institutions. Most importantly, we wanted to ensure the process followed our commitment to intersectionality and to inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA).
We realized that the best path forward meant posing those questions publicly through a completely open and inclusive request for proposal (RFP) process that would not only identify the best partners, but would give us a better understanding of the landscape of those already engaged in the field to build an ecosystem beyond the three formal partners.
Crafting an Inclusive Process, Step by Step
With administrative support from GDI Partners (also identified through a local RFP process), we issued the RFP through extensive outreach across multiple networks. By January 2023, we had a robust pool of applicants and an engaged panel of jurors representing leaders in philanthropy, government, social impact, and academia. We are grateful to these key experts in helping us identify our first set of network partners in India:
- Abhishek Singh, President and CEO, National E-Governance Division (NeGD)
- Anna Agarwal, Visiting Professor – IIT-Kanpur; Researcher in Energy and Environment Policy
- Philipp Olbrich, Advisor, FAIR Forward, GIZ
- Neharika Vohra, Professor, IIM-Ahmedabad
- Shweta Narayan, International Climate and Health Campaigner, Healthcare Without Harm
- Santosh Harish, Program Officer, Open Philanthropy
- Uyi Stewart, Chief Data & Technology Officer, data.org
The evaluation was rigorous, and we sought feedback from the panel at every phase on items large and small, operational and strategic. Not surprisingly, their input and expertise were invaluable, and they helped uncover both pitfalls and opportunities as we progressed.
Based on the jury’s co-created 25-point rubric, we methodically narrowed the candidates to six potential partners, including traditional technology and management universities as well as unconventional liberal arts and law schools.
After virtual conversations with the academicians and senior university administrators, the jury submitted their individual rubrics and recommendations and met together one last time to discuss, debate, and make a cohesive decision as a group — a decision we are excited to announce at a day-long convening to celebrate the launch of the India Accelerator on May 15.
Productivity Beyond the Process
While we are enormously excited that we identified three exceptional university partners through an open and inclusive process, we are especially proud of the lasting connections we made with the full pool of institutions, including those that did not progress.
At every phase of selection, applicants that did not qualify were given specific written feedback about their strengths and areas for growth and improvement, and we offered each an opportunity for an hour-long follow-on conversation to talk in further detail.
Through those conversations and exchanges, relationships were forged, ideas germinated, and a broader, more expansive ecosystem has begun to take shape across India — an ecosystem in which there is excitement, momentum, and a growing recognition of the need to grow and diversify the DSI talent pool. These partners share a commitment to engage with our efforts and exchange ideas and insights in the future through new training programs, fellowships, internships, and more.
At data.org, we learned so much through this process, but among the most surprising and rewarding lessons was the value of the open RFP process. And as we work toward our goal of training one million purpose-driven data practitioners, we are excited to cultivate and learn from the powerful network of partners that has begun to take shape.
Associate Director, Capacity Accelerator Network (CAN)
Priyank Hirani is the Associate Director for the Capacity Accelerator Network (CAN) at data.org, where he strategizes and implements initiatives to democratize data skills and enable social impact organizations to be data-driven.Read more