DataKind's Jake Porway: Inspired by Data Volunteers

Exciting as your work might be, especially as data grabs the spotlight, are you ever a tad dissatisfied? Wondering, really, whether you're doing enough with your talents?

You can do more -- just let Jake Porway, founder and executive director of DataKind, be your inspiration. DataKind, as I've written previously, hosts events bringing together data experts and local charitable organizations in need of help understanding, mining, and analyzing their data.

Porway, who joined for an e-chat yesterday (read the transcript here), said he had asked himself such questions last year while working as a data scientist for New York Times R&D and crunching data on the weekends at local hackathons. As he explained during our e-chat:

Like lots of you guys, being involved in the data world meant that I was witnessing daily how important data was going to be in business, government, and beyond. It seemed like every day I was reading a new blog post about how big data was disrupting healthcare or radically changing data-driven decisions in business. It was really exciting.

I was even more inspired to see that people were working with data in their spare time, leveraging powerful machine learning tools and scraping public datasets to build interactive visualizations and new data-driven products at nights and on weekend.

Jumping into hackathons and innovation challenges was a reprieve from the constraints of corporate work, but ultimately those activities took a toll on his psyche. He explained:

I was really dismayed that most of the work we were coming up with was "more of the same" -- parking apps, restaurant finders, daily deal sites. Just more mobile apps that made comfortable lives just a tiny bit more comfortable… I wanted to solve global warming, not help people buy cheaper iPads, and that was when I went off in search of a way to make that happen.

Now, Porway takes pride in work like an interactive visualization his DataKind volunteers developed for DC Action for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization that collects statistics about child well-being. DC Action for Children is "super awesome, the team that's working with them from DataKind consistently blows my mind, and I'm just amazed at all the hard work both sides have done."

While the D.C. Kids Count prototype shows how the data comes together in an interactive visualization -- a "big step up" considering the organization usually just puts out a 200-page PDF of child stats, Porway noted -- the full product will have some spatial analysis and statistical analyses built in, too. Plus, this project "may end up being scaled out to all Kids Count programs, allowing national use of the tool."

Porway also cited work DataKind volunteers undertook to help an arm of the United Nations create a visualization of cellphone survey responses. The UN liked the results so much, Porway said, it kept working with the team and ultimately presented its work at the UN General Assembly. "The fact that six people who spend their days working at and Amazon can go out, work on a project for a week, and show it to the UN is just incredible to me."

More broadly, Porway said, he's really in awe of the volunteer community at large:

I'm always amazed that even one person comes to spend their time using their skills for good, but seeing rooms full of 100+ people spending their weekends hacking to solve poverty or help with humanitarian crises is just breathtaking. And having them come up and say, "Man, I didn't know I could do these things -- how do I keep helping?" gives me the chills every time.

Attend a DataDive and get yourself some chills. And no worries if one isn't coming to a city near you. DataKind even plans to offer DataDive kits. After all, Porway said:

The goal of all of this is not to be a crutch for organizations, but to engender a world where every non-profit is data-driven. As such, we are meticulously collecting the lessons we've learned from these projects so we can establish common tools, best-practices, and resources that we can hand over to organizations so they can become data-driven themselves.

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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  • 9/14/2012 11:53:18 AM

Beth thank you for bringing our attention to this critical organization that is demonstrating everyday what we all knew--- data can change lives, impact communities and influence the world we all call home.

Re: SO inspired by DataKind
  • 9/13/2012 4:20:19 AM

I just read through everything, wow, what a read, very cool stuff.

Re: SO inspired by DataKind
  • 9/12/2012 9:01:30 PM

The blog section of the DataKind website has LOTS of great stuff up about the NY City Parks DataDive.  I just went down the rabbit hole for 45 minutes reading all of it.

Check it out! Incredible!  I'm so humbled by these folks!

Re: Excellent use of data
  • 9/12/2012 8:21:02 PM

@Noreen, the sharing goes on and on ....

Re: SO inspired by DataKind
  • 9/12/2012 8:08:09 PM

And, Sherry, he seems like a genuinely nice guy. I do hope DataKind hosts another DataDive in Chicago so I can participate.

SO inspired by DataKind
  • 9/12/2012 5:05:48 PM

I can't stop thinking about the e-chat yesterday with Jake Porway.  He and DataKind are ONE of a kind as far as vision and "walking the walk" go.

I'm really inspired to get involved and to have certain charities that are near and dear to my heart submit proposals.

Jake's observation about "getting the organizations to hone in on the questions they need answered, not the data they have" was beyond brilliant.  Insights like that just don't come along every day!

Excellent use of data
  • 9/12/2012 2:33:21 PM

What a great way to maximize the value of not only contributions but the volunteer efforts of individuals. By better understanding best practices, these organizations will have greater abilities to do good.