Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Data Without Borders

I spent a brief period in the 1990s serving as a part time tech support provider working on behalf of the organization then known as CompuMentor (now TechSoup Global). I vividly remember crawling under a desk in Redwood City to help (what was then known as) the Bay Area Coalition of Essential Schools get its computer (yes, singular) hooked up to its dial-up modem and get the AOL account up and running.

How revealing is that memory? One computer for an office? Dial up? AOL? By now you may well be wondering "just how old are you, Lucy?" Well, I'm not that old. Technology has changed a LOT in a short period of time. And while my skills with wires were soon recognized as limited, I'm proud to say I went on to serve on CompuMentor/TechSoup Global's Board for seven years, which gave me a second row seat to many of the changes in technology and nonprofits.

My limited career crawling under desks was part of a much broader movement of technology circuit riders. In the 1990s these assistance providers went door to door - nonprofit to nonprofit - and helped organizations get their internet cables connected, their PBX phones running, and launch brochureware web sites. The Wikipedia entry on this gives a shout out to Gavin Clabaugh (now at The C.S. Mott Foundation) but others who got their feet wet back in the day include uber nonprofit technologist Beth Kanter and NTEN's own Holly Ross. There is still an international network of "e-riders." You can read a good history of the nonprofit technology assistance movement here.

Fast forward to today. Now we need Data Circuit Riders. And they're coming - this Fall. Data circuit riders are data scientists who work with nonprofits for the greater good. I spoke about this idea at the Personal Democracy Forum (video link) and discovered - within about 48 hours of the speech - that some good folks from The Guardian UK and elsewhere were already making it happen. The result - Data Without Borders. Here is the mission statement:

"Data Without Borders seeks to match non-profits in need of data analysis with freelance and pro bono data scientists who can work to help them with data collection, analysis, visualization, or decision support."
The DwoB folks in NYC are launching with a hackathon involving nonprofits in the Fall. I've been learning from an amazing group of data wonks from the City of San Francisco works with incredible nonprofit staff people from the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and cool volunteers to make the Summer of Smart project link to DataWithoutBorders. I'd love to see your nonprofit or foundation connect with these efforts.

Now is the time to figure out what data we have, how we can better use it, how we can use the data to tell better stories and make change happen. Connecting with data scientists and visualization experts is au courant now. The Sunlight Foundation - one of our era's great "data nonprofits" makes this case clearly in their job description for a "data visualization fellow." Trust me, you'll look back on this in a few years and doing so will be either standard practice or sound as "duh" as dial up modems.

You can get involved with DataWithoutBorders through their website, follow them on Twitter, friend them on Facebook.

No comments: