Just Do Data
(Portland, OR) -- “Data is the new oil.” In an otherwise humdrum Closing Keynote address by Nike’s VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation, Hannah Jones, this struck me as rather a provocative statement. She’s trying to incite a hotel lobby full of nonprofiters, philanthropists, MBA students, CSR practioners and other business-minded social entrepreneurs “to be disruptive, to innovate and to create a sustainable new world.” She wants us to get smarter about how we work for social impact – with data.
Three very full days with 2,600 attendees and 395 speakers at the 2011 Net Impact (NI) conference – against the über-eco backdrop of Portland, OR – and this is my main take-away:
Data is the sexiest new thing at the intersection of business and social impact.
OK, OK, I concede that data is neither new nor sexy. But it is being leveraged by the social sector in innovative and forward-thinking ways that are grabbing attention on a national scale. Here’s an NI-inspired look at three different objectives and examples of how do-gooders “do data”:
1. To efficiently deliver needed products and services
…for instance, in the chaotic aftermath of a natural disaster. Consider NetSquared Mashup Challenge winner Patrick Meir, Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, who crowdsourced and mapped needs in the critical hours and days after the devastating Haiti earthquake, using free and opensource software developed by his organization.
Or Mercy Corps, which is using a mobile app to get food to people in need in Haiti and Kenya through a mobile money (m-wallet) product. By giving recipients electronic food coupons instead of food, they also drive economic development among local food producers – and they pair the funds with financial literacy training. Phil Oldham, Country Director, is quick to emphasize the double bottom line: in addition to a critical social benefit, the tool streamlines distribution, saving the organization precious time and money.
2. To crowdsource funding and social innovation
Crowdsourcing actually is kinda sexy – or at least it’s the much-touted “big thing” in technology for social good. To borrow a phrase from X-Prize, the goal is nothing less than “revolution through competition.” Ooh, la la.
Less sexily put, crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model used to source both solutions to social problems and cash to underwrite promising projects. Examples include Groupon and Facebook Causes (respectively represented by Kyle Klatt, Manager of Development and Matt Mahan, COO at Net Impact), but also Kickstarter, The Hoop Fund, Global Giving, Citizen Effect, Kiva, our own NetSquared, and the exuberant onrushing player in the tech space, Campus Party, with their Hacking for Something Better (H4SB) initiative... I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
3. To measure impact for smarter iterations and social enterprise field-building
You can’t manage what you don’t measure, cautions a well-worn business adage. Today, organizations have access to more data than ever, from program results and survey data to site traffic and donations. Yet these mountains of information are really only useful if they spark improvements that further the mission. A panel at Net Impact called “Data-Do-Gooders: Organizations Using Metrics to Rock their Missions” shared how to select the right data, how to share it (with the right people), and how to incorporate it into new and better iterations of the programs using free tools like Google Analytics and Facebook Insights.
From a 30,000-foot view, data is also used in spades by social investors and philanthropists for proof-of-concept and to demonstrate social and financial ROI, which has positive spillover for thought leadership in the field. Social investing and social enterprise have rapidly gained traction in the investment landscape, largely because the data has been used to tell a compelling story (i.e. doing well by doing good). The need to facilitate due diligence and provide 501c3 equivalency data for international philanthropy came up repeatedly at NI – thank goodness for initiatives like Great Nonprofits, Charity Navigator, and TSG’s NGOsource and Guide Star International programs.
Let us now turn our attention back to the green-catered, LEED-certified hotel lobby and Nike’s views on sustainability and innovation. Using a soccer analogy, as is fitting for an exec at the world’s leading sports apparel company, Ms. Jones recounted that Brazilian mega-star Pelé once famously said, “I don’t go where the ball is, I go where the ball is going.”
And I wonder: is data the ball, or does data point up where the ball is going? Or both?