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Data for a Cause Update


It has been 7 weeks since I announced to the world my plans to start the Data for a Cause challenge. I wrote the blog post on December 4th and scheduled it to be published on December 14th. My initial plan was to refer a few people to the blog post and ask if they would be interested in joining in. Well, 7 weeks have now passed and many things have happened along the way.

Data-driven as I am, I’ve documented every day. Here is how it’s generally gone.

During the first week I actually didn’t email anybody. I got sick, and I had other things to take care of. My blog post was published and people started to respond to it. By the time I got to check my emails, I had over 100 subscribers. Saying that I was surprised is an understatement. I felt awesome!

The blog post was a test to see if I had a good idea. I knew about a bunch of companies that have similar objectives, and I knew that they wouldn’t be there if there was no demand – but I had no idea the response would be so great.

The response from that article led to interest from 3 organizations. One company offered to sponsor it, and two reached out to see if they could benefit from it. Week 2 was actually Christmas, so I didn’t feel bad about the interest declining a bit. With hundreds of subscribers, I knew that I would need to get hold of really interesting data for them to work on. Many people have actually reached out directly through email, Twitter, LinkedIn and such. I carefully went through every profile, to try to understand what kind of challenges they would be interested in solving. I sent a survey to every volunteer, and in exchange for an opportunity to be featured on the website, I asked them to answer questions about their personal interests and experience.

And here is what I found:

1. There are many data visualization tools out there that people are using, so I had to make sure that I didn't limit you to one specific tool. So I rejected the sponsorship offer.

2. You are a diverse crowd of multitalented people. The first person who subscribed was a professor of mathematics at one of the leading Canadian universities. The next volunteer was a design student from Italy. Today we have Tableau experts, D3.js coders, researchers, statisticians, and other just amazing people who have offered to help in any way they can.

3. Almost all of you are driven by two motivators: desire to help, and desire to learn. And I admire you for that!

I’ve learned a tonne by just going through your letters and messages! Thank you for that!

I have to say a special thanks, too, to all the sceptics! Some people wrote that nonprofits would never give their data to volunteers. I had to seriously discuss this with some of the people in the industry, and get a handle on the legal side of things. So thank you for that. I’ve modified the rules to allow publicly available data to be used by the nonprofits who are limited by their stakeholders and data sharing policies.

Through a conversation with another sceptic, I realized that I have to write down rules, so that no organization gets into trouble by using the creative work of our volunteers. That’s how the official rules of the challenge came into being. Thanks!

Someone told me that not in a million years would this challenge ever work out. We are yet to see if that’s true, but thank you for pushing me to work extra hard to get in front of the nonprofits (seen how low I was in week 3?)!

Since we are talking about week 3, I thought I would share what I was busy with then. On December 26th (10 days after I started the challenge) I was healthy and happy. I sat down and spent 18 hours figuring out if nonprofits were actually using data visualizations as a marketing tool on social media. I mean, we’ve all seen infographics about different causes. I got onto Facebook API and loaded 6-months’ worth of data, from 100 nonprofits. The results stunned me. Most of the nonprofits I reviewed were what I consider some of the best. From helping the homeless to educating the poor, to providing basic sanitation, only a tiny number of them actually used data visualizations. I analyzed the performance of 100 nonprofits’ Facebook pages and created custom-detailed reports for each one. I then sent them to their social media people, for free.

A few of them actually replied. And the feedback I got was that as social media managers, they are limited in what data they have access to, and what tools they could use. Basically, they were left to themselves. Data visualizations that they shared were created by their data team (1 case) and their consultants (the rest). This realization really sobered me up.

I switched my strategy. Instead of reaching out to the smart guys responsible for social media, I started to pitch the challenge to directors of nonprofits, members of the board and other senior folks. This wasn’t something I’d planned for initially, and it took a lot longer. All the senior folks wanted to talk to their team, and then to their data people, and then their data people would talk to me or I would talk to them… I wanted to start on January 22nd. But because of all the dialogs that needed to happen, and because I have some completely separate full-time commitments, I couldn’t launch on that date. This made me feel low again.

At Week 5, with 300 people waiting, I couldn’t push it any longer and I sent a reminder that the challenge was about to start. In my email, I included a Twitter button with a pre-written Tweet. Haven’t seen this one? It might be in your spam folder! After I ran the analytics of my email provider, I estimated that anywhere between 13.7% and 19.2% of emails end up in spam folders. Bummer! (Note: remember to add my email to your contacts if you didn't see this email)

Oh, what a journey so far! Never mind all the ups and downs – it’s great! I’m really enjoying it.

The challenge is officially live! We are starting with a dataset on food insecurity. All the volunteers, as our most loyal supporters, are of course the first to know about it. The dataset arrived via email, as usual.

If you would like to join in, it isn’t too late. Please go to subscribe; I’ll immediately send you all the details.

Here is some inspiration:

If you are a mission-driven nonprofit, please do not hesitate to reach out to me (even if it is because you want me to talk to your boss about it). We are here to help, and I will try to get through any obstacles that might be stopping you from joining right now.

I will share updates about the challenge at least once a month on this blog, to keep you posted. But if you want to stop sitting on the sidelines and start learning about what’s going on, please join the challenge – you will get an email long before a post appears on this blog!

#DataforaCauseUpdate