Data to the Rescue: Smart Ways of Doing Good

Nicole Wallace in the Chronicle of Philanthropy: “For a long time, data served one purpose in the nonprofit world: measuring program results. But a growing number of charities are rejecting the idea that data equals evaluation and only evaluation.

Of course, many nonprofits struggle even to build the simplest data system. They have too little money, too few analysts, and convoluted data pipelines. Yet some cutting-edge organizations are putting data to work in new and exciting ways that drive their missions. A prime example: The Polaris Project is identifying criminal networks in the human-trafficking underworld and devising strategies to fight back by analyzing its data storehouse along with public information.

Other charities dive deep into their data to improve services, make smarter decisions, and identify measures that predict success. Some have such an abundance of information that they’re even pruning their collection efforts to allow for more sophisticated analysis.

The groups highlighted here are among the best nationally. In their work, we get a sneak peek at how the data revolution might one day achieve its promise.

House Calls: Living Goods

Living Goods launched in eastern Africa in 2007 with an innovative plan to tackle health issues in poor families and reduce deaths among children. The charity provides loans, training, and inventory to locals in Uganda and Kenya — mostly women — to start businesses selling vitamins, medicine, and other health products to friends and neighbors.

Founder Chuck Slaughter copied the Avon model and its army of housewives-turned-sales agents. But in recent years, Living Goods has embraced a 21st-century data system that makes its entrepreneurs better health practitioners. Armed with smartphones, they confidently diagnose and treat major illnesses. At the same time, they collect information that helps the charity track health across communities and plot strategy….

Unraveling Webs of Wickedness: Polaris Project

Calls and texts to the Polaris Project’s national human-trafficking hotline are often heartbreaking, terrifying, or both.

Relatives fear that something terrible has happened to a missing loved one. Trafficking survivors suffering from their ordeal need support. The most harrowing calls are from victims in danger and pleading for help.

Last year more than 5,500 potential cases of exploitation for labor or commercial sex were reported to the hotline. Since it got its start in 2007, the total is more than 24,000.

As it helps victims and survivors get the assistance they need, the Polaris Project, a Washington nonprofit, is turning those phone calls and texts into an enormous storehouse of information about the shadowy world of trafficking. By analyzing this data and connecting it with public sources, the nonprofit is drawing detailed pictures of how trafficking networks operate. That knowledge, in turn, shapes the group’s prevention efforts, its policy work, and even law-enforcement investigations….

Too Much Information: Year Up

Year Up has a problem that many nonprofits can’t begin to imagine: It collects too much data about its program. “Predictive analytics really start to stink it up when you put too much in,” says Garrett Yursza Warfield, the group’s director of evaluation.

What Mr. Warfield describes as the “everything and the kitchen sink” problem started soon after Year Up began gathering data. The group, which fights poverty by helping low-income young adults land entry-level professional jobs, first got serious about measuring its work nearly a decade ago. Though challenged at first to round up even basic information, the group over time began tracking virtually everything it could: the percentage of young people who finish the program, their satisfaction, their paths after graduation through college or work, and much more.

Now the nonprofit is diving deeper into its data to figure out which measures can predict whether a young person is likely to succeed in the program. And halfway through this review, it’s already identified and eliminated measures that it’s found matter little. A small example: Surveys of participants early in the program asked them to rate their proficiency at various office skills. Those self-evaluations, Mr. Warfield’s team concluded, were meaningless: How can novice professionals accurately judge their Excel spreadsheet skills until they’re out in the working world?…

On the Wild Side: Wildnerness Society…Without room to roam, wild animals and plants breed among themselves and risk losing genetic diversity. They also fall prey to disease. And that’s in the best of times. As wildlife adapt to climate change, the chance to migrate becomes vital even to survival.

National parks and other large protected areas are part of the answer, but they’re not enough if wildlife can’t move between them, says Travis Belote, lead ecologist at the Wilderness Society.

“Nature needs to be able to shuffle around,” he says.

Enter the organization’s Wildness Index. It’s a national map that shows the parts of the country most touched by human activity as well as wilderness areas best suited for wildlife. Mr. Belote and his colleagues created the index by combining data on land use, population density, road location and size, water flows, and many other factors. It’s an important tool to help the nonprofit prioritize the locations it fights to protect.

In Idaho, for example, the nonprofit compares the index with information about known wildlife corridors and federal lands that are unprotected but meet the criteria for conservation designation. The project’s goal: determine which areas in the High Divide — a wild stretch that connects Greater Yellowstone with other protected areas — the charity should advocate to legally protect….(More)”