HelpAge International, Oxfam get pro bono data expertise from DataKind

Volunteer data scientists donated their expertise to a group of charities, including Oxfam and HelpAge International, last weekend

Data scientists from investment banks, Marks & Spencer and Ocado give up their free time last weekend to take part in an event for charities. But the 80 or so data geeks were not running or swimming. They were donating their data analytics expertise pro bono.

The DataDive, held by a non-profit organisation modeled on a US equivalent, DataKind UK, took place at the offices of Mozilla in Covent Garden.

HelpAge International and Oxfam were two of the charities who benefited. Among the other attendees were Community and Voluntary Action Tameside and Hampshire County Council’s Special Educational Needs team.

Each charity at the DataDive, sponsored by Teradata, chose a specific project to focus on and was shown how to look at their data in order to solve specific issues, from studying the trends and underlying drivers that affect local food prices, to understanding age-related effects on health and well-being.

Oxfam GB want to undertake a global study into trends and underlying drivers that affect local food prices. 

At the end of the event, Simone Lombardini, research officer at the charity, said: “I am amazed at how much has been done. We can use this output on a daily basis and we have so many more ideas for further research.”

Beginning on Friday night, each of the four charities gave an overview of their project, with the volunteers working a 12-hour day on Saturday trawling through and analysing data, before re-convening on Sunday for more analysis. Each team then presented their findings.

Sylvia Beales, head of strategic alliances, HelpAge International, explained that her organisation is developing an index of the world's ageing population, comprising four domains: income security; health – both physical and psychological; employment and education; and how people feel about their living environment, transport and so on. 

There are 91 countries in the index, which will be released in October. They want to get all countries in it.

“We are looking to make our data visually compelling and easy to read," said Beales. "Ageing is not necessarily immediately interesting for people. This has been a godsend. It is making the data sing." 

The information will be consumed by governments and other civil society organisations which develop policy in the area of ageing.

“With this event, we got so much further than we could have done by ourselves”, she added. 

Out of the DataDive event, the charity got data visualisations, such as a heat map, but also a capacity to cluster countries by region, which they did not have before.

“We want a ‘report card’ for each country on the website. We’ve now got clearer idea of what that will look like”, said Beales.

Before the event itself, DataKind provided ‘data ambassadors’ who got the data into a good state. Among the common themes was supplementing each charity’s data with third-party, publicly available data. The charities have said they will continue with their projects and many of the data scientists have agreed to stay on as dedicated volunteers.

Duncan Ross, a founder and director of DataKind UK, said: “This DataDive is just the start of the journey and is only really scratching the surface of what each of these four organisations can accomplish. As data scientists we do not have the answers when we work with these charities. What we hope to achieve is a revolution of the way that society uses data, ultimately to make the world a better place.

“The charities will benefit from this data work to the extent that they can innovate new services. This gives them a first taste to get them excited."

Ben Gilchrist, from Community and Voluntary Action Tameside, added: “It has been a powerful experience that has moved us much further forward and has created something really interactive.”

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