How Non-Profits are Using Big Data for Big Change

Collectively, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. These data sets, both public and private, have already been leveraged in amazing ways by organizations in almost every industry. Pharmaceutical company Merck, for example, utilized data analytics software to anticipate month-to-month pollen rates based on weather patterns. By redirecting regional marketing campaigns based on its findings, Merck was able to significantly increase seasonal revenue.

Organizations everywhere are exemplifying not just the power of big data, but also its versatility. Now, the social sector is getting in on the action.

The social sector includes corporations unrelated to the government that address any number of social issues. Many of these organizations have begun to realize the power of big data. For example, the Chinese website “Baby Come Home” compares user submitted photographs with images from a missing persons database. It uses facial recognition software to identify and reunite abducted children with their families. So far, Baby Come Home has facilitated 686 successful identifications.

However, many organizations struggle to utilize big data in effective ways. Disparate or lacking data sets, data privacy concerns, and a lack of knowledge on how to manipulate data often keep these organizations from utilizing public or private data sets. Advanced data visualization systems provide these organizations with the resources needed to turn data sets into actionable insight.

Here are a few ways your organization can utilize big data to increase effectiveness and efficiency.

Localize Awareness Campaigns

For many non-profit and social sector organizations, reaching the appropriate audience to gain support is crucial for project success. Support in this capacity could be monetary donations, or awareness and social sharing. According to the 2012 Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report, most non-profits (76%) use Facebook for non-fundraising purposes.

Utilizing natural language processing (NLP), a technology that derives understanding from unstructured data like call logs or written text, your organization can identify social media users who are already posting about issues related to your mission. For example, if your organization focuses on women’s rights issues, you can use NLP to find all social media users who have mentioned the topic (using related phrases or keywords), then target those users in awareness and marketing campaigns.

Beyond social media, analyzing previous or current supporter information can assist with your organization’s marketing efforts. For example, by analyzing typical support demographics, and comparing those findings with public data sets regarding regional demographics, you can more effectively orchestrate mail or newsletter marketing campaigns.

Develop More Effective Solutions

Most organizations in the social sector are focused on solving certain issues as quickly and effectively as possible. By manipulating big data, your organization can develop innovative solutions to combat social issues.

For example, Jonathon Bays from McKinsey & Company explains how data gathered from cellular devices can be used to save hundreds of lives after natural disasters. Gathering data from SIM cards lets relief experts monitor the location and movements of whole populations in real time. This helps relief groups deliver appropriate amounts of supplies to the areas in greatest need. Additionally, movement information combined with census data can help anticipate the outbreak and spread of disease.

Polaris, a non-profit organization working to eradicate human trafficking, has a hotline that human trafficking victims can call at any time to receive assistance. This has led to over 72,000 telephone interactions between 2007 and 2012. Polaris used this information to analyze trends in human trafficking, from demographic information to local density of occurrences, and released this information to the public in an effort to increase awareness of human trafficking incidents, in addition to outlining preventative measures that can be taken.

Collective Problem Solving

Some problems (and data sets) are just too big for one organization to tackle. This has been a seriously crippling issue in the search for a cure for cancer. Cancer Research UK (CRUK), an organization dedicated to finding the cure for cancer, has terabytes of archived data on cancer cells that must be classified before they can be used for studies. To tackle this task, CRUK and Zooniverse collaborated to create Cell Slider, a website that lets volunteers around the world categorize and analyze cancer cells. Currently, volunteers have analyzed over 2,300,000 samples, significantly assisting in CRUK’s progress towards a cure.

By making large data sets available to the public, your organization can utilize the collective intelligence of interested participants. In turn, this provides your organization with usable sums of data. For example, with the Cell Slider web site, CRUK is now able to identify individuals interested in cancer research. These individuals can be targeted for recruiting, or for fundraising campaigns. You can also determine the demographic information of interested individuals for insight into the success and relevance of regional campaigns and initiatives.

Organizations everywhere utilize data sets (big and small) to gain a competitive advantage. For organizations in the social sector, “competitive advantage” looks very different from normal businesses. Nonetheless, big data can be an incredibly useful tool for solving the issues facing society today. Use big data in your organization to generate a big impact.

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