Horse with a Pointy Hat

Musings of a data scientist and recovering astrophysicist

DataDiving: Time to stop waiting on the world to change

Part 1: The need to do good works

Recently I found myself listening to John Mayer's track Waiting on the world to change and in the context of a disappointing 2016 some of the lyrics seemed somewhat apt:

"Me and all my friends We're all misunderstood They say we stand for nothing and There's no way we ever could Now we see everything that's going wrong With the world and those who lead it We just feel like we don't have the means To rise above and beat it ... And when you trust your television They can bend it all they want That's why we're waiting (waiting) Waiting on the world to change

But this song was written in 2006; ten years later and the world has changed somewhat, certainly my world, in 2006 no one had heard of data science! In the past decade we have seen the emergence of lots of open source data and tools; 'they' no longer own the information and some of us are in the fortunate position to be able to turn that information into knowledge and actionable insight to challenge the "establishment" line or to help make the world a better place.

So really it is up to us to stop waiting on the world change, and get one with changing it.

Part 2: How?

Back in 2014 I was introduced to a charity called DataKind UK and the best way to introduce them is to steal borrow a quote from the founder of DataKind:

"We are meticulously focused on bringing data science in all its forms to those who share our vision of a sustainable planet in which we all have access to our basic human needs. We envision a world where organizations tackling those problems have the same access to data science resources that Wall St. and Silicon Valley have."

-- Jake Porway, DataKind Founder and Executive Director

DataKind UK acts as an intermediary introducing the charitable organisations to a community of data scientists who are prepared to donate some of their own time to deploy their data science skills for good works. One of the core ways this is done is through DataDives, the data science equivalent of a hackathon. Typically starting on a Friday evening, a group of 3-4 charities arrive to pitch problems together with internal (and open) data sets to a group of ~80 data scientists. Then first thing Saturday morning everyone returns and people choose the charity they want to work for for the duration of the weekend; the teams work from 09:00-22:00 on Saturday with regular feedback sessions to:

  • Break up the day
  • Keep everyone in the loop as to what is going on

Those who survive to 22:00 pose for the traditional "survivors selfie" (you'll find them on twitter) followed by some sleep before returning on Sunday morning to finish up the projects before having some lunch and presenting the final findings to everyone. Throughout the weekend everyone is fed and watered by DataKind; plenty of coffee, pizza and beer to go round!

Part 3: Does it work?

I've participated in three DataDives to date (see future posts about specific dives) and at every single one I've been blown away by what is achievable by ~80 people committed to investing 20-ish hours into a couple of problems. And I've never heard of an charity who collaborated in one of the events being disappointed with what was achieved and in most cases they have been truly amazed at what you get out of data. I do, however, have to give a shoutout to the "Data Ambassadors" these are voluteer Data Scientists and Engineers who engage with the charities for the couple of months running up to a DataDive to make sure that there is (semi-)clean data with clear questions to be tackled so that at the event we can really hit the ground running.

So if you're a data scientist who wants to give something back see if there is a DataKind chapter in your country and sign up! If you're a charity and you've been wondering what all this big data, data science buzz-thing is and you have data and questions then get in touch with DataKind and maybe we could be solving your problems next time. And if you're a corporation/company in the tech sector then encourage your team to participate or sponsor an event. And if you're still asking why, because:

"You are educated. Your certification is in your degree. You may think of it as the ticket to the good life. Let me ask you to think of an alternative. Think of it as your ticket to change the world. "

-- Tom Brokaw


Perhaps we should reach out to John Mayer for a new song, "Building the world we want"


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