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Without a doubt big data is one of the most talked about topics in nonprofit technology and IT in general this year. It was last year as well. But if you’re not a big collector of online information like Google, Facebook or Microsoft, what does big data have to do with you and your work? It’s a big fuzzy topic, but I’ll give it a shot.
Like me you may be a bit unclear about what big data actually is. MIT Technology Review recently cited Oracle’s definition: “Big data is the derivation of value from traditional relational database-driven business decision making, augmented with new sources of unstructured data.” Uh. OK.
I find NPR commentator and linguist, Geoff Nunberg’s description of it more useful. “We kick up clouds of it (data) wherever we go. Cellphones and cable boxes; Google and Amazon, Facebook and Twitter; cable boxes and the cameras at stoplights; the bar codes on milk cartons; and the RFID chip that whips you through the toll plaza — each of them captures a sliver of what we're doing, and nowadays they're all calling home. It's only when all those little chunks are aggregated that they turn into Big Data; then the software called analytics can scour it for patterns. Epidemiologists watch for blips in Google queries to localize flu outbreaks; economists use them to spot shifts in consumer confidence. Police analytics comb over crime data looking for hot zones; security agencies comb over travel and credit card records looking for possible terrorists.”
As we have more and more devices collecting data about what we do, vast amount of information is piling up about us. This year, 3.3 zettabytes of data will be created, of which only an estimated 0.5% will be analyzed. A zettabyte, by the way, is roughly equivalent to 250 billion DVDs filled with information. A person living in European Renaissance times was exposed to about the same amount of data in a lifetime as we are in a day.
Keisha Taylor is TechSoup Global's senior manager for business planning and research for our Global Data Services work. She's our primary writer and researcher on all things charitable data. Keisha wrote a great piece a couple of years ago called Data, Data Everywhere: But How Does It Relate to You and Your Work? I asked Keisha to catch me up on what charitable big data looks like now to her. Keisha recommends checking out the book, The Human Face Of Big Data, as a way to get a grasp on how all this new information is creating a nervous system for the humanosphere.
She also likes the big data for good work coming out of the UN Global Pulse initiative. She tells me that big data is not surprisingly mostly collected by companies and to some extent also governments. The field of open data is all about their sharing it out to the rest of us. The Open Knowledge Foundation is a great advocacy charity in that field. The UN Global Pulse initiative operates hubs for data sharing among data analysts, government program planners, the UN, private sector companies, and civil society people to develop tools that recognize signals in the ‘data exhaust’ of big data.
Keisha also recommends having a look at the work of DataKind, especially their online project gallery. This charity was founded recently by former New York Times R&D lab data scientist, Jake Porway. Datakind brings data scientists together with social organizations to use data in humanitarian work. Jake Porway cites the Grameen Foundation’s Mobile Data Collection and Extension Service as one of the easiest-to-understand charity big data projects. Grameen has a team of community knowledge workers who go out in the fields of Uganda and collect agricultural information on their mobile devices. Grameen compiles and crunches the data and delivers vital information back to subsistence farmers via text message - like crop prices and weather info to that help them make the best decisions about their farm and future. Jake Porway talks about the project in the short Wall Street Journal video, Big Data and Nonprofits.
Probably the clearest examples of the usefulness of data for charities is the explosion of infographics and maps that graphically illustrate the issues that nonprofits are working on. Keisha recommends Nicole Wallace’s Chronicle of Philanthropy piece: “Visualizing Data Helps Charities Get Attention” and its companion “Nonprofit Data Visualization Gallery”.
The Microsoft and Google map services are significant big data sharers. Microsoft enables charities to use Bing Maps free of charge. The UK based company, Earthware has developed a free mapping tool which enables charities to create, customize and embed project or event maps into their website to display the information in an interactive, format. Google has a similar arrangement. The nonprofit Charity Water uses it to display all their completed clean water projects around the world.
I can’t imagine that there’s any better place to get familiar with data visualization than to see what your own data exhaust looks like. Facebook Insights is an analysis tool that lets you see how your Facebook activities are working. Social Media Examiner has a good clear how-to piece on how to use it. Twitter Analytics is a similar tool for crunching data on your Twitter activity. I like Search Engine Watch’s Twitter Analytics: A Beginner's Guide. Finally Google Analytics is a widely used tool to see how your website is performing. Google’s own Getting Started With Google Analytics is a great place to get up to speed on that.
Our Ariel Gilbert-Knight also recently published a piece in the Guardian called “Social media, crisis mapping and the new frontier in disaster response.” This describes how charities are building on the extraordinary work of the Kenyan charity, Ushahidi, that builds interactive crisis maps by harnessing the big data that flood in from social media sources during a disaster. Like all big data projects, the sheer volume of it is overwhelming. A recently launched set of ‘microtasking’ apps will help relief organizations deal with the information overload. MicroMappers apps help volunteers identify and map useful social media data by breaking down larger, more complicated analytical tasks into small, easily completed microtasks.
Come to find out, there actually is quite a bit that big data has to do with charitable and humanitarian work. Big data was much talked about this year, and probably will be for some time to come.
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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