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Data for Social Good

15 December 2016 at 11:36 am
Ellie Cooper
A new initiative is connecting not-for-profit organisations with data and data analysts to help them solve social problems and measure their impact.

Ellie Cooper | 15 December 2016 at 11:36 am


Data for Social Good
15 December 2016 at 11:36 am

A new initiative is connecting not-for-profit organisations with data and data analysts to help them solve social problems and measure their impact.

The Minerva Collective is a Sydney-based not for profit conceived by Data Republic, a secure platform that connects data-rich organisations with insight-seeking analysts.

Recognising that data is increasingly important for organisations to target their services and report on their impact, Data Republic initially wanted to provide the use of its technology to not-for-profit organisations on a pro bono basis.

But head of The Minerva Collective Whitney Komor says the initiative allows this idea to go further than data access, offering a way for analysts and not for profits to connect and work together.

“I’ve been working with Data Republic and…  they realised… that the same power of bringing together data from commercial insights could benefit the social sector. And so they wanted to contribute their platform to not for profits on a pro-bono basis,” Komor told Pro Bono Australia News.

“But then we realised it’s a much bigger problem than simply opening up access to data, and we connected with Mike [Michael Allwright] and Anthony Tockar, the other co-founders of Minerva, and these two guys… were working on mobilising analysts to connect to not for profits to help with their data.

“We realised there’s a lot of overlap in what we wanted to do, and co-founding The Minerva Collective would allow us to bring together both data and people to help not for profits with their social good initiatives.”

She says the aim is to lead the “data for social good” movement in Australia.

“The ambition is to drive a global ecosystem where not for profits, analysts and organisations willing to donate data can connect and use data to drive social good,” she said.

Co-founders Allwright and Tockar have both been working in the data science field for 10 years.

Allwright told Pro Bono Australia News analysts were excited to use their skills for social good.

“Whenever we mentioned doing something useful for society through data, everybody became really engaged and interested, and it correlates with the stuff that we’ve seen in researching this project, such as… 80 per cent of millennials want to be doing something that has an impact in their work, and so we’ve recognised that there is a big need to get those analysts involved,” Allwright said.

“But of course the main proposition, and why it’s so exciting to co-found Minerva with Data Republic, is that data sharing and the opportunity of being exposed to a wide range of data we otherwise wouldn’t have had access to… really massively enhances the scope of some of the problems we can solve for society.”

He says, as an example, data could be used to improve homelessness services.

“The way analytics could help people experiencing homelessness is the optimal matching of the various services that people may need with the individuals themselves. So, for example, is there adequate counselling available in Redfern,” he said.

“So as that data’s collected, there’s a possibility to merge it. Now where the Data Republic platform comes in is we have the opportunity… to bring all this other data together, which includes transactional banking data, it includes things like grocery purchases, and what we can do with that… is start to segment individuals in terms of what they do and what they might be at risk of.

“That augments our ability to connect individuals to services as part of a wider piece of work, which really looks at the optimisation of services, be it counselling, drug therapy, whatever else it is, hospitals, that sort of thing, to help individuals.”

One of the first charities working with Minerva is ReachOut, an online mental health service.

“Suicide is the leading cause of death for males and females between the ages of 15 and 44 in Australia,” ReachOut EO Jono Nicholas said.

“We’re working with The Minerva Collective to develop a method to use data to optimise direction of our self-help tools to those experiencing a tough time so we can reach more young Australians, earlier in their symptom development and, ultimately, save lives.”

With the shift towards data-driven impact investment and grantmaking, including the government’s $96 million Try, Test and Learn Fund, Minerva also aims to help for profits demonstrate their impact to secure funding.

“I was talking with the DSS in Canberra about how we as Minerva can help organisations prepare applications for the TTL fund,” Komor said.

“Because if they’re advocating for not for profits to increasingly move in that direction around measuring their impact, the reality is they need access to the people who are going to be able to help them do it and, in many cases, access to richer data where they can actually see what the state of an issue is in a certain area or for a certain demographic.

“So we’re really looking forward to trying to get more involved in that impact measurement space, even at that government level. It’s one of our major goals.”

Co-founder and CEO of Data Republic Paul McCarney calls data the “currency for growth in today’s society”.

“We don’t want to see not for profits left behind. Many government and commercial organisations hold data that would be enormously helpful to not for profits,” he said.

“However, until now there hasn’t been a network in place to coordinate the secure donation of anonymised corporate data, along with analytical skills, for social good.”

The initiative also has the support of key organisations involved in data analysis, including Social Ventures Australia.

“Given the sector’s move towards managing to outcomes, we are very excited about The Minerva Collective’s capacity to enable social purpose organisations to utilise previously inaccessible data and provide specialist experts to help analyse that information,” SVA CEO Rob Koczkar said.

“Access to better data will improve the ability of social purpose organisations to increase their impact, better communicate with staff, funders and community and make more considered strategic decisions.”

Long term, The Minerva Collective is looking to partner with corporates who can share their data or offer their analysts the opportunity to work with not for profits pro bono.

“It’s mobilising a corporate workforce who want to use data and their skills to have an impact on society, rather than, for example, just painting something [on a workplace volunteering day],” Allwright said.

“The argument is they could have a very large impact and that would contribute to their employee wellbeing.”

Komor says for corporations open to sharing their data, there are strong privacy protections in place.

“The thing that they’re really opening up is that ability for organisations to donate data safely. Up until now there really hasn’t been a way for a company, even if they were willing and wanting to help a social issue, to have a way that they can securely share their data with analysts but have complete governance over that use,” she said.

“And so it’s Data Republic’s governance framework that’s really key. So organisations are going to pick and chose every project they might be able to contribute their data to, and that can be at an aggregate level, not necessarily individual data.”

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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