These days, Big Data is all the rage. You can’t swing a stick in a coffee shop without hitting a journalist or blogger writing about the potential – and pitfalls – of drawing insights from the unprecedented volume of data being produced every second of every day. Organizations of all kinds are being urged to make the most of this new resource to better target and tailor their work.
But for a resource-strapped nonprofit, taking on data analytics can seem to be a monumental challenge. Financial concerns are paramount: with the field of data analytics booming and salaries skyrocketing, attracting top-tier talent can take massive financial resources from organizations that may already be forced to make sacrifices just to operate. Second is the problem of understanding: without prior experience, it can be difficult to know what, if any, insights data can generate that would empower your organization to better achieve its mission.
Luckily, both problems are easily solvable. Your nonprofit can recruit passionate students from around the world seeking real-world experience – for free – through a new massively open online course, the University of Washington’s Introduction to Data Science. Organizations can post projects ranging from data visualization to predictive modeling and more. Not sure how you could benefit? Here are some tips on how your organization can learn – and grow - from data:
1. Don’t worry about getting technical – instead, think of where you need help and what questions you want answered.
Free resources like Introduction to Data Science mean that you don’t need to worry about the technicalities, like how to use (or pronounce) data software solutions like Hadoop. Instead, you’re free to focus on asking guiding questions and letting students handle the rest.
First, figure out where you’d like your organization to gain additional insights. Data analysis can help with anything from publicity / marketing to human resources to gauging impact – it just takes a well-framed question or two. Here are some examples:
- Which pieces of our web content have most boosted our online presence (social media followers, Google searches, site traffic) and why?
- Which of our social media posts have seen the most engagement from followers? What characterizes these posts (e.g. timing, length, subject)?
- How can we best present the statistics that inform our mission and demonstrate the urgency of our work?
- Given the demographics and other (anonymized) information about our clients, can you predict which ones will be impacted by our services the most?
- What is the profile of the ideal hire / partner / consultant for our organization?
- How do the measurable indicators of our impact compare to those of other organizations working with similar clients?
- Based on previous grants we’ve received, why do certain foundations tend to support our work?
2. Consider what you could learn from public datasets.
A common misconception among nonprofits is that organizations need to have their own internal store of data to benefit from analytics support. However, there are thousands of powerful datasets available online from research institutions, free of charge; moreover, in the age of the web and social media, data pulled from social networks or your own web traffic can generate extraordinary insights about your reach. Here are a few examples:
- Twitter and Facebook both have APIs – application programming interfaces – that allow developers to pull data and analyze data from public feeds.
- There are several unofficial APIs for Google Trends, a public tool that examines Google search volume over time for a given term and offers the chance to drill down by language, location, and more.
- The powerful Google Analytics API, when partnered with metadata from your website, can help discern patterns in web traffic, allowing you to better target your content to your anticipated audience.
- The World Bank has a massive volume of datasets on a wide variety of international development-related topics.
- Pew Research, a leading nonpartisan research and polling firm, has thousands of historical datasets from U.S. political surveys available for analysis.
- Google has a listing of hundreds of additional publicly available datasets from governments, research institutions, and more.
3. Don’t stress about “Big Data” – focus on your own organization’s context.
The notion of “Big Data” can be overwhelming at times. With 2.5 quintillion bytes of data (and counting!) being generated every day, who has time to attempt to sift through it and separate the signal from the noise?
Truth be told, to benefit from data analytics, your organization doesn’t need to worry about conjuring up a massive internal dataset, nor must it seek answers from unwieldy public datasets. Instead, focus on finding the information you need to answer the specific questions you’re asking.
In a blog post for the Harvard Business Review, GuideStar’s own Jacob Harold calls “medium data” – information specific to your organization’s work and its field – a necessary precursor to “going big.” He’s right: for most organizations, more modest, targeted datasets can provide extraordinarily valuable insights. Depending on your needs, external data can also serve as a “training set” to develop overarching models that can then draw more specific insights using smaller internal datasets.
Still unsure how data can help your organization? Post in the comments and we’ll brainstorm with you! Don’t miss the opportunity to recruit students for free data analytics support – sign up for Introduction to Data Science today to gain insights that could supercharge your impact.
Amit Jain is the lead researcher and marketing director at Coursolve, which connects academic courses to organizations to empower students to solve real-world problems. He is also an associate teacher of middle school math and science at a charter school in Boston, MA.