Talent, Transformation, and Unlocking Data

How We Are Working Together to Solve Problems Bigger Than We Are


“We need systemic change in our interconnected world and technologists can help deliver it,” said Danil Mikhailov, Executive Director of data.org, in his keynote speech to open the 2021 Good Tech Fest.

But what exact steps do we need to take in order to build the field of data science to deliver sustainable social impact?

Whatever we do, it must be done with care and intention. Danil pointed out that the COVID-19 crisis helped us realize how interconnected our complex challenges are. The pandemic focused our attention. But solving the issues that led to it also means taking on climate change, social inequality, and injustice simultaneously. We need to address these issues in an interconnected way, and technology is part of the solution. But none of these are simple, linear problems, and Danil cautioned against treating them as such.

“As technologists we must be careful about solutionism,” he said. “There is no app for climate change. These are nuanced challenges that require thoughtful approaches.”

Nevertheless, Danil said technologists in the social impact space are especially suited to find solutions to these problems. They are “better placed” to do so, he said, when compared to their peers in the for-profit sector. Although that should not open the door to complacency.

“We have the trust and the subject matter expertise to operate in this complex, interconnected space,” he said. “But we need to keep improving.”

Danil called for the data science community to lobby governments and philanthropists to help close the capability gap with the private sector while also championing diversity and representation in the tech for good space. “We need to build tech in a participatory way with the communities that will use it, rather than parachuting solutions in,” he said.

Technologists should not work in a vacuum, either, but with other experts. “That means tech and data scientists working with social scientists, with experts in the humanities and accounting for the cultural context and the social consequences of technology,” he said.

Danil also highlighted three areas in which data.org, taking these complexities into account, is building the field of data science for social impact:

Building a Talent Collaborative. data.org is building capacity among leaders and organizations seeking social outcomes. Organizations need the talent of dedicated data scientists (and all kinds of purpose-driven data professionals) to advance their work. Trainings and talent matching will help social sector organizations realize their goals by adopting data science more quickly and applying it effectively, Danil said. The data.org Talent Collaborative aims to address how data science is taught in universities, how to attract and retain social impact workers to work with data, and how to train leaders in data strategy and literacy to help them make better decisions.

Organizational Transformation. Even if you increase the throughput of better talent into the sector, many NGOs, community groups and even academic teams are not set up to absorb data science. “They don’t have the data strategies,” Danil said. “They don’t have enough expertise to make good use of data science.” So data.org is creating an investment fund in partnership with a number of philanthropists, Danil said. This fund will invest to improve organizations’ ability to use data – from strategy to hiring to data maturity – to deliver social impact.

Creating a Data Consortium. data.org is launching a major consortium to unlock commercial data for the use of academic and social impact. “We’ve seen with a pandemic how important it is to get data on footfall, on transactions, the kind of things which are locked into private companies to tell what populations are doing and therefore be able to model better and more accurately the cost of the pandemic,” Danil said. So data.org wants to build up the tools, infrastructure and “the data model of the architecture of how to unlock private data,” Danil said. data.org will work with others to unlock commercial data, which often includes sensitive data and privacy concerns, in ways that are both privacy-preserving and useful in the social impact space. “We believe the problems we are working to solve are bigger than any one organization or even sector can solve on its own,” he said.

In closing, Danil remarked on how partnerships must be forged to bring the vision to life. And that also comes with building a digital platform for people to work together.

Two more sessions at the Good Tech Fest conference anchored by data.org leaders expanded on the talent collaborative and a digital platform to bring the vision to life.

Building a Talent Collaborative

Chief Strategy Officer Ginger Zielinski led a session titled “Preserving the Infinity Stone: Building, supporting, and retaining top data and tech talent to build data-driven, social impact organizations.”

The title of the session was inspired by the “infinity stones” from the Marvel Universe, Ginger said. Each stone represents an aspect of existence: soul, mind, time, space, and power. Ginger used the framework of the stones to encourage participants to think about the power and challenges of using data and technology in social impact work, and particularly in relation to attracting and retaining talent.

The conversation sparked by the framework included the importance of articulating how talent fits into the organizational strategy and particularly the necessity of conveying the importance of the monetary outlay to build tech and data teams. Participants also talked about the importance of data training for colleagues in non-data roles so they could be empowered to use and ask questions about data.

Participants spoke about the need for intersectionality across organizations, with tech and non-tech colleagues working together.

Synthesizing the vital discussion during the session, Ginger said: “Let’s make sure we invest in tech talent. It is about how we work together. It’s taking the time to connect with your non-tech teams and formalizing the mechanisms to do so. What I’m hearing is that to actually do this well, that intersectionality and learning from each other has to be a ‘need-to-have’. And without it, we won’t actually be able to deliver on our aspirations and dreams and priorities of being tech-enabled social impact.”

Building a Digital Platform

“We believe that this sector needs digital public goods to really fuel the sector and advance change,” said Perry Hewitt, Chief Marketing Officer of data.org in a session titled “Drivers Wanted” that detailed the organization’s work in creating a dynamic resource to bring together people, organizations, and ideas for the field of data science for social impact — and asked for feedback from participants.

In the session, Perry and Modern Tribe Creative Director Kyle Unzicker — who, along with data.org Senior Technical Consultant Lin Chen, is leading creation of the platform — shared their vision for the platform, which is set to launch later in 2021, and asked participants to weigh in on the specific resources that would help them as they work and grow in the space. They used an interactive tool called miro to engage participants in a session designed to overcome Zoom fatigue.

Building the case for data to have social impact within organizations often means overcoming barriers to investment, participants said. And that means telling engaging stories. Perry and Kyle were interested in feedback on what participants would want to see in case study presentations and in digital resources to help organizations leverage data and data science.

“We want to highlight people doing innovative and important work in the sector,” said Perry, about the platform’s philosophy for case studies. “The aim is to help other people in the space to be inspired by an approach or methodology.”

In the session, data.org engaged participants in thinking about what a “best-in-class case study” would look like, in order to be most useful. Participants offered that information on the teams behind the project and their roles would be hugely helpful, plus information about timelines, milestones and constraints and when possible, access to the data sets.

The platform will also offer resources to help organizations across work areas, like data use agreement templates, dataset finding tools and a comprehensive hiring guide for executive directors. Participants shared that guides to help them make the case for data projects to their organization’s leadership were especially needed, as were guides on ethical concerns when using data.

“I think probably everyone on this session has convinced themselves why data related projects are a really good idea,” said Corey Newhouse, founder of Public Profit, who participated. “We know that getting the funding and getting the commitment from leaders in our organization can sometimes be a little challenging. So, I think guides to help make those connections between organizational needs, budgetary needs, and why a data related project can help an organization to reach the goal could be really helpful.”

Harnessing the power of data science to tackle society’s greatest challenges is no small feat. Through multisectoral partnerships and strategic investment in talent, organizational development, and shared digital infrastructure, data.org is working alongside the data for good community, like the committed professionals at Good Tech Fest. Together, we can build the field of data science for social impact – and the global change we are intent on delivering.