Good data is worth its hypothetical weight in gold, and data scientists have become sought-after alchemists able to extract meaningful insights from large pipelines. But if good data is tricky to find digitally, it’s nearly impossible to find in a dusty box containing documents photocopied into oblivion.
And yet that’s exactly the kind of environment many nonprofits draw their data from. Daniel Tihanyi, a former public evaluator, described the process as one that feels more “Wild West” than gold rush.
“Sometimes we’d get datasets that came from scanned paper surveys with hand-entered responses and have dozens of interns help parse through that data,” Tihanyi said. “Or we’d work with databases that required downloading really old versions of software just to be able to open, analyze, and share the data.”
Gleaning any kind of accurate insights from this data — often recorded by multiple volunteers in scattershot systems — is a challenge, to say the least. Yet with stretched resources, there’s often no room in a nonprofit’s budget for trained techies to swoop in and spin up processes to help alleviate these administrative pain points.
This frustrating reality led Tihanyi to Social Solutions, where he now serves as a product owner of data and research. The company specializes in case management software designed to make good data more accessible and actionable to nonprofits.
With our tools, volunteers and staff can input information directly into an online form that then automatically saves information to a database.”
Adriana Beal, Social Solutions’ lead data scientist, explains that accurate data has become crucial for nonprofits to gauge their effectiveness and make improvements. Not only can these adjustments yield better internal programs, but organizations and individuals alike have become interested in seeing nonprofits’ data before providing grants and donations.
While compiling these insights is vital, it’s also an enormous pain point for organizations that don’t have the staff or the time to fulfill these requests accurately. But with some updated tools, they may not need either.
“We can’t free nonprofits from having to comply with demanding reporting requirements or increase the number of staff members they have,” Beal said. “But we can help them save time in data entry and in building reports. With our tools, volunteers and staff can input information directly into an online form that then automatically saves information to a database.”
With solid data more accessible than ever, what kind of progress can nonprofits make?
Social Solutions’ software aims to help nonprofits evaluate their programs through data, but what does that look like in practice?
Product Owner of Data & Research Daniel Tihanyi: Often we’re introducing new tools that can replace old workflows that, in the past, would involve actual case files and hundreds of pages of documentation. With our tools, people can enter data and within minutes capture all the data points that they need for that particular program, helping them maximize the use of funding they receive and enable them to impact the highest number of people in the most vulnerable populations.
This data can show organizations where they have services that are being underutilized. For example, in the space of education, where do they see low attendance? Does that attendance translate into lower scores on exams? There are potential causal connections that we can enable clients to identify by having organizations collect data on their participants throughout their continuum of care.
Lead Data Scientist Adriana Beal: When we work with nonprofits that fight homelessness, for example, the desired outcome is to have every single family placed in permanent housing and stay there. In that case, we would monitor and report if a program is working or identify what’s not working so the nonprofit could shift its resources.
The same thing goes for programs that deal with job placement or with helping kids improve academically: We look at the given outcome and then figure out how we can get insights to help those nonprofits improve the results.
MISSION DRIVEN, EVEN OFF THE CLOCK
Where does all this data come from?
Beal: A lot of a data scientist’s work revolves around identifying the best sources for data. Our software is constantly generating data about which participants are enrolling in programs, how many are exiting successfully and things like that. The other source of data we have is from third-party sources like the census and economic reports. Curating all the sources of data that we combine to generate insights is a big part of this job.
What are some data challenges that are exclusive to nonprofits?
Tihanyi: There are just so many data points. It’s really a challenge for organizations that they don’t have a dedicated case management platform that’s designed for them.
For example, being able to keep track of the same data on the same participants when there are so many different people involved in entering data can definitely be a challenge. We focus on enabling organizations with tools that help keep track of the data and make sure that what people are collecting and entering is valid. The tools that we have in place are centered around intake forms, reporting tools, dashboards and new ways to engage with clients that directors can use for their organization and really empower volunteers, administrators and case managers.
Beal: Another challenge we face is reticence from people who could be sharing data with us. Convincing organizations to share their data is hard. We need to educate organizations about how privacy is a big part of our work. I’m a data scientist — I’m not looking at individual pieces of data or at the names of participants or anything. And when nonprofits share data, they can learn together and provide a more holistic solution.
Tools of the trade
- Jupyter and Python notebooks
- S3 data storage from AWS
- A new analytics environment based on Zeppelin
On the subject of data-sharing, what is the partnership Social Solutions has with Cradle to Career?
Beal: Cradle to Career’s goal is to help every child not only be ready for kindergarten and succeed academically but also complete some form of post-secondary education or training in order to advance in a meaningful career. With our software, any service provider working under this Cradle to Career framework can track their individual and collective progress.
For example, we monitor children who participated in a reading program for at least three months and then validated how much that helped improve their academic performance. Armed with the data stored in our software, all those service providers can learn about what’s working for them and their sister organizations. That helps them find bright spots and identify opportunities to drive resources toward what’s working and move resources away from what’s not.
GETTING SCHOOLED — IN A GOOD WAY
What’s in store for the intersection of data and nonprofits?
Tihanyi: We’re seeing organizations adopt more data-driven solutions and investing more in research. That’s going to set them up for success, regardless of their scale. We have customers with as little as 10 employees and we have some that are some of the largest state health providers around the country. That’s changed a lot because, 20 years ago, these types of tools were only available to the largest organizations. I’ve been excited to see the increased access that we’ve been able to provide nonprofit organizations nationwide.