Geeking Out for Good

As I noted in Leap of Reason, data systems are not the decisive factor in whether organizations make the leap to high performance. But when you have a leader who is relentless in pursuing impact and has a sense for how data can support that pursuit, you’ve got a very powerful combination.
Exhibit One: Michael Flowers. As highlighted in this New York Times profile, Flowers is the head of New York City’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning—a skunkworks team with a mission of using data proactively and creatively to help the city do a better job of meeting its residents’ needs. For example, the office has mined massive amounts of city information to speed removal of trees destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, focus housing inspections on the buildings where catastrophic fires were most likely to occur, reduce clogging of the city sewers by homing in on restaurants that were illegally dumping cooking oil, and combat property fraud.

Flowers is not a data geek. He’s a guy who cares deeply about “actionable outcomes” and likes solving problems. He first gained an appreciation for data analytics when he served a stint in Iraq with the Justice Department and saw how predictive informational techniques could help him steer his team clear of roadside bombs.

Today, he uses these concepts when he’s directing his young team of “quants” to find new ways of using data to solve municipal challenges. “If Young & Rubicam can use tweets to sell you stuff,” he asks, “why can’t the city use them to make you less sick?”

Thanks to keen observers like Lucy Bernholz, we know that Flowers and his team are just one data point in a constellation of efforts by relentless leaders to use data for social good. Here are some other data points that have come to my attention in the past few weeks:

  • Steve Seleznow, a good friend, former school superintendent, and former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation executive, is now the CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation. He is investing heavily in developing this same kind of data-mining capacity for the state of Arizona., created in partnership with Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy and The Arizona Republic, is a centralized data resource for exploring economic, educational, and cultural information on Arizona and its communities.
  • Amrit Singh is another innovator who, like Flowers and Seleznow, defies any caricature of the “government bureaucrat.” He now directs the Education Data Portal program at the New York State Education Department. The portal will provide educators, parents, and students with access to rich student data via Data Dashboard tools. It will also connect these users to high-quality content (e.g., instructional materials and videos) tied to the Common Core State Standards via recommendation engines (think Netflix).
  • Khan Academy Founder Sal Khan, whom I’ll be visiting next month, isn’t just creating high-quality videos for students all over the world. He’s building an unequaled dataset for understanding what works for helping different students achieve mastery of complex topics. “In the long run this means that Khan’s value won’t be in his videos per se,” says Innosight Institute co-founder Michael Horn, “but in the data created from the system of assessments and learning map of concepts.”
  • As part of the Markets for Good and Grand Challenges initiatives, our friends Darin McKeever and Victoria Vrana of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have launched a $100,000 challenge to develop “new and innovative approaches to increase the interoperability of data that can be used for social good.”
  • The authors of the just-released book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think document the many ways in which leaders are using data to “improve healthcare, advance better education, and predict societal change—from urban sprawl to the spread of the flu.” They also wisely caution about the new threats Big Data introduce, “from the inevitable end of privacy as we know it to the prospect of being penalized for things we haven’t even done yet, based on big data’s ability to predict our future behavior.” This is yet one more reason for an unrelenting focus on leadership, judgment, and discernment when it comes to using data.
  • And for those who remain skeptical of the hype around Big Data, please read “The Alibaba phenomenon” in the current issue of The Economist. Alibaba, based in China, is a behemoth in e-commerce—bigger than Amazon and eBay combined. “Perhaps Alibaba’s greatest untapped resource is its customer data. Its sites account for over 60% of the parcels delivered in China. It knows more than anyone about the spending habits and creditworthiness of the Chinese middle-class, plus millions of Chinese merchants. Some 6 million vendors are listed with its sites.” This is not an example of using Big Data for social impact, but it shows that Big Data is coming fast and furious, and we ought to figure out how to harness it for good.

When I look at all these data points—and many more from healthcare that I’m learning about in my role on the board of the Cleveland Clinic—I see huge opportunities for public and private funders. Why aren’t more funders helping their grantees collect and use not only their own data but also the huge stores of public data which could help nonprofits understand community needs and target their services better than ever before?

And now some brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • On March 7, David Hunter launched his new book Working Hard—and Working Well with a webinar that broke all previous PerformWell attendance records (1,179 attendees). The book is currently number three on Amazon’s list of best sellers in the “Nonprofit Organizations & Charities” category and is drawing praise from a wide variety of reviewers. Congratulations, David!
  • We recommend Larry Probus’s SSIR blog item “Measuring Impact: Keep it Clear and Simple.” Probus, the CFO of World Vision US, describes the role that measurement plays in his organization’s work to increase access to clean water for a million people in Africa. We were particularly pleased to see the way key donors were stepping up in a big way to support not just data systems but managerial muscle-building.

Next month, we’ll start offering listings of events related to performance-driven leadership, high-performance culture, and performance management. If you have an event you’d like to see us include, we’d love to hear about it. Please drop us a line or let us know via @LeapofReason.

My best,