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Transforming data into actual oil with data skilled volunteering


26 August 2020 at 6:03 pm
Ethel Karskens
We need to make data equity a fundamental right for all organisations, writes Ethel Karskens, founder and CEO of Civita. 


Ethel Karskens | 26 August 2020 at 6:03 pm


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Transforming data into actual oil with data skilled volunteering
26 August 2020 at 6:03 pm

We need to make data equity a fundamental right for all organisations, writes Ethel Karskens, founder and CEO of Civita. 

For the past few years, data has been described as being the new oil: an untapped resource that can revolutionise our processes. Oil, because of its tangibility and its scarcity, has created enormous inequalities across the globe. With data, there is an underlying optimism that we can, this time, democratise access to this asset. After all, data is not hidden beneath the surface and doesn’t need extremely costly investments to be uncovered, right? 

The issue is that we have underestimated the resources and the willingness needed to create a true equal data-driven world. 

In many cases, the new oil ended up being rocks.

The need for for-purpose organisations to become data-driven 

A minority of organisations whose main source of income come from data have been able to take advantage of the new asset of our era. But many companies have not yet set up their processes to bring out the promised value of data. Especially, many for-purpose organisations – charities, not for profits, communities – have not often prioritised putting resources towards data projects, mainly because of a lack of/limited resources. 

Contrary to what one might think, developing a data culture is especially important in the social sector. These organisations can use the value of data in a number of ways: 

  • Optimising their operations. Because of their limited resources, an evidence-based way to minimise their costs can go a long way. 
  • Measuring social impact. In addition to being accountable for income and losses like any other organisation, for-purpose organisations need to measure and show the actual impact of their programs, which requires a data-driven approach. 
  • Storytelling to the audience. These organisations need to raise awareness around their cause. Sharing strong evidence-based stories can help convince and prove the importance of the organisation’s work. 
  • Grant application. With all of the above, a more data-centric organisation has more chance to receive financial support when applying for grants or subsidies.  

There are, of course, exceptions. Some socially-driven organisations have built an incredible data culture and have set the example for the rest of the sector. This is especially true for larger organisations with more means and more accountability. 


See also: If data is 21st century oil, could foundations be the right owners?

Data skilled volunteering  

In the past few years, several groups have emerged worldwide to release data science resources for impactful projects. For example The Data Science for Social Good fellowship and DataKind have connected groups of data scientists with charities and other larger socially-driven projects. By making these talents and skills available for projects, which would typically have fewer financial resources than for-profit organisations, they generate incredible outcomes. 

At Civita, we realised from the start that society was facing a structural problem that could not be resolved with one-off data science projects. Firstly, because a majority of for-purpose organisations do not have the data maturity required to gain from data science, which requires a certain amount of data, resources and processes within the organisation. Secondly, because we needed to engage continuously with the organisation and make them part of the process if we wanted to make a longer-lasting difference. 

In other words, our objective is to raise the data maturity of for-purpose organisations and, in the long term, make them independent of our support. Our core value is data equity: every organisation should have the same access to the incredible value that can be leveraged from data. 

To achieve that, we use data for good by applying three principles: engagement, learning and, most importantly, scalability.

Collaboration between the sectors is key

With these three principles, we have helped dozens of organisations become more data driven. While the “data journey” of these organisations has not been an easy flowing stream, we need to continue to progress and make data equity a fundamental right for all organisations.  

Data has been at the centre of many discussions and hopes over the past decade. While it has always existed, for-purpose organisations have started to realise the importance of creating a data culture. While there is a stronger prioritisation towards data projects, there are still limited resources allocated to them, especially in the for-purpose sector. 

This is why we bet on creating a deeper and lasting change of how we can use data for good. We believe that data equity comes with collaboration between all industries and shouldn’t be secluded within the social sector. We think that it requires an ongoing commitment towards that vision. Finally, we need to keep learning from each other. With all these in mind, let’s work together to transform these rocks into actual oil. 

Ethel Karskens would like to thank Wendy Doan and Binal Dodhia for the proofreading.


Ethel Karskens  |  @ProBonoNews

Ethel Karskens is the founder and CEO of Civita.

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