Data for Good: Tackling the Open Data Movement

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend O’Reilly’s Strata Conference as a representative of West Monroe’s Advanced Analytics team. Strata focuses on trends in Big Data and Analytics, two of the hottest topics in the technology world today. At Strata, I was exposed to emerging Big Data architectures and design patterns, and had the chance to meet passionate and influential technologists in the field. Here are my experiences and reactions related to the theme ‘Data for Good’.

Data for Good at Strata

As broadening and inspiring as my first trip to Strata was for me, my biggest take-away was realizing the dedication that the data community has for using data for good. Strata demonstrated that technologists are dedicated to applying practices of data analysis to solve challenging, real-world problems. These are just a few examples of using data for good that Strata helped bring to the forefront:

  • DataKind’s Jake Porway discussed how DataKind organizes volunteers, with data science skills, to help solve real world problems. He highlighted how non-profits, social meetup groups, and even the for-profit sector are getting excited about using data to drive change in our communities and the world at large. Mr. Porway explained DataKind’s partnership with GiveDirectly to help direct community donations through the use of satellite imagery of rooftops (very cool data stuff).
  • The White House’s Dr. DJ Patil explained the continued focus by the US Government to release data publicly to the American people to benefit all Americans. This included the release of the new ‘Sweat and Toil’ dataset containing data related to child labor and forced labor worldwide.
  • Chicago’s very own Jay Margalus and Mike Emerick discussed how Open Government is changing public policy and some of the key challenges to driving policy using data. Their talk revolved around the investigative journalism that revealed “black sites” within the Chicago police department where Americans were detained and their information disappeared off the record.

Strata made it clear that today is unique in that we are at a crossroads between increased data availability, reduced technology costs, and a society of people that want to do good. This combination is a catalyst for a powerful movement in the data space, with potential to affect the way societal problems are approached and policy is made in the world.

Doing Good in Chicago

West Monroe Partners has a track record for philanthropy and our Advanced Analytics practice team often leads the pack with charitable giving and community service attendance. The past two years, with the help of the West Monroe’s Fisher Fellowship, our team has sent two of our (favorite) members to Ghana and Peru to apply their unique skills in technology and problem solving to help small communities in remote regions. Back home, our team has remained actively involved supporting local Chicago community through our work with local programs like SparkAutism Speaks, and Chicago Environment Programs, among so many others. While our firm’s passion for giving in the community is heartening, there remains opportunity for alignment of our technical and professional skills to approach the issues our non-profit partners are facing.

“Today is unique in that we are at a crossroads between increased data availabilityreduced technology costs, and a society of people that want to do good. This combination is a catalyst for a powerful movement in the data space, with potential to affect the way societal problems are approached and policy is made in the world.”

The Opportunity

Technologists have a deep understanding of technology, not the problems: I love being a technologist, but I do often wish I had the ability to focus fully and for long periods of time on one problem. It is when you fully dedicate yourself to a problem that you are able to understand the problem and apply hypothesis based on past experience. Context is invaluable and unavoidable in problem solving and technologists sometimes do not have the necessary context to be effective.

Problem solvers lack technical experience: While data is a powerful asset, it does not come with instructions for handling integrity concerns. The devil is in the details and that is exactly where subject focused users can fail with little understanding of data quality, metadata and master data management, and understanding of statistical relevance.

One-size-fits-all doesn’t always cut it: Emerging data visualization tools such as Tableau and Qlikview can help bridge the gap between subject matter experts and technology, both very good options for the non-profit sector. While these types of tools can help, they require an underlying data layer that even large corporations with resources can have trouble taming. Performance of querying, data quality concerns, inconsistency of attribute definitions (master data management), even understanding of data priority and focus (data governance) can all get in the way of successful use of tools.  

How to Bridge the Gap

  1. Technologists, get involved – While a select few at Strata led by example, there is a huge opportunity for the rest of the crowd to get involved. Volunteer groups and organizations are popping up all over the map to tap into this valuable skillset.
  2. Problem Solvers, get technical – A basic understanding of data querying and manipulation can go a long way and there are many (free) ways to learn about coding and analytics.  By working alongside technologists to fully understand of a toolset, findings can be much more accurate and can better lead to relevant insights.
  3. Collaborate – The very best technology/technologist is helpless without context – even dangerous as Jake Porway alluded to in his keynote. It is simply not possible very difficult to be an expert both technically and within on a non-technical subject matter. The solution to this is early and frequent collaboration between technologists and subject matter experts. The difficult problems, those with complexity that challenge both our subject matter leaders and technologists, require focused minds from both groups.

West Monroe Partners has been incredibly successful in our collaboration between subject matter verticals and technology capabilities. Our firm markets the concept of delivering a balance of “Business Consultants” with “Deep Technologists”, the formula we feel allows us to deliver relevant solutions for our clients. Being able to turn to a healthcare or banking subject matter expert across the desk helps our technologists better understand the problems they are solving. Similarly, our technologists help our subject matter experts by applying a technical lens to their industry specific problems.

To take advantage of the open data movement we all need to prioritize bridging this gap between subject matter and technologists with the ultimate goal of doing good. Only by doing so can we cooperatively challenge the big problems.

I am happy to network with anyone working with Analytics for social good, please feel free to reach out to me

Phone: 312-602-4000
222 W. Adams
Chicago, IL 60606
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