Big data, open data, and you

One of the realities of life in our sector is that we get buried in our work, our missions, our industries. Endlessly raising money and valiantly delivering programs, we’re too often immersed in our own causes and don’t always have time to come up for air and take a good 360-degree look at the world around us.

There are two trends gaining prominence that are worth a few moments of consideration. “Big data” is being talked and blogged about, mostly in a negative tone and primarily in the context of the private sector, and “open data” is a growing phenomenon in the public sector that is very encouraging and valuable. Both are likely to affect our sector over time.

Here’s a quick overview of the ideas behind these buzz words.

Big data refers to the staggering number of terabytes of information that fuel commerce and life as we know it. This is the explosion of devices, apps, the cloud and the web—a collection of data so large and complex that is becomes difficult to process using today’s database management or processing tools. Nearly a third of U.S. companies surveyed this spring by Microsoft expect the amount of data about customers and markets that they collect and store to double in the next three years. Combining business, education, and government, analysts estimate that every five years, the sheer amount of information that our world stores increases ten-fold. Meanwhile, it’s not just data files that are growing, but our access of them in everyday life. The average working adult in the U.S. today has four connected devices.

Why should we care?

1. Prospect and donor cultivation. Whatever you were taught in the past about researching potential major donors is whole a new ballgame today. Obviously private corporate marketing interests motivate the explosion in individual data profiling, but it’s only logical that more and more information on income, property, leisure, and household habits will become available to the rest of us. Think of it this way: data gathered in 2013 is out of our reach, but data gathered in 2011 might not be.

2. Privacy. Some individuals resent that their every buying habit, preference, health history, and location is steadily filling an electronic profile off in the cloud. Strong arguments can be made on both sides of the debates regarding surveillance cameras and facial-recognition technology, not to mention stored/shared medical files. Back in our world, be mindful of this sensitivity. If you offend someone with a real (or perceived) privacy breach, you’ll never win them back.

3. Personalization. Never forget the value of face-to-face communication. It’s tempting to embrace dazzling new technology to an extent that you forget the critical “high tech, high touch” balance completely. Your donors are human. Your funders are human. Personal relationships are not going out of style.

4. Capacity. This is a good year to invest in your servers, database, hardware/software, and data management practices. We’re not asking you to train to win the “big data” race, just be equipped to maintain your organization sensibly at the back of the pack.

5. Competition. You may consider this topic esoteric, but your competition may not. Life is guaranteed to evolve rapidly over the next decade. Your volunteers and your donors are a precious resource that you must never take for granted; today they’re being marketed to at an astounding rate by increasingly sophisticated means. Will your next generation of volunteers and donors find you and choose you over the others?

Open data is a movement across local and state government to make more information available to the public online. Motivated by a desire to reduce staff time on open-record requests, and certainly part of an overall momentum to make government more accessible and approachable, this idea is framed around the question of “What else can we provide?” instead of “Why would anyone need that?” This is not new data being collected by government; it’s providing data to the public that has been compiled anyway.

Why should we care?

6. Research. There is a growing wealth of diverse information that your organization can draw from to design better programs and refine fundraising. For example, in one or two clicks on the website under Open Data, nonprofits can find the location of all existing pedestrian curb ramps and a list of those remaining to be installed, you can review maps of estimated tree canopy coverage in the city, you can identify all electric car charging stations, you can navigate the U.S. census data and HUD income levels of individual neighborhoods, and you can check crime data for the past five years around a specific address. The range of information is impressive and surprisingly current, sometimes just weeks old.

7. Marketing. Your nonprofit can refine its description of why it exists, quantify what it hopes to accomplish, and better target its communications using open data. Need to know how many children in your county go to kindergarten? Need to know whether animal adoptions are on the rise? Need to know how many residents over 80 live alone in your service area? Start clicking.

8. Expectations. There’s a joke about trying to teach young people today who question, “Why should I have to learn this (history, science, culture)? If I ever need to know it, I’ll just look it up online.” The point is, ready information at our fingertips is more than convenient—it’s the way we assume life will be. If your web site is lofty on mission but light on results data, you’re going to disappoint people.

9. Measurement. We’ve lectured for years in Rich TIPS on the importance of defining, measuring, and reporting your long-range outcomes, not merely outputs. The growing trend of deep, specific, current data being available to the public and decision-makers is only a threat to your nonprofit if you’re still neglecting evaluation practices and reporting.

10. Modeling trust. One of the most important motivations behind open data is creating a stronger level of trust between individuals and large organizations. People want to see tangible evidence that their investment (in the case of government, tax dollars) is producing value and forward progress. Isn’t that what we seek to demonstrate to our stakeholders as well? Could more transparency in your operations and reporting strengthen your brand?