I’ve written before about the “Data for Good” movement, mostly in a disparaging way. Much of it has a sort of “noblesse oblige” feel about it, where businesses peel off a little of their time or product.
From my point of view, much of it is gratuitous and even counter-productive. Tech companies valiantly go forth and believe their technology can solve societal and humanitarian problems.
However, unlike developing pipelines to handle billions of bits of data or the perfect customer experience, real-world problems usually have very little data in comparison.
Sending a semantic search engineer out to build an application for a local food bank will result in a volunteer with no impact on something for which they have neither skill nor interest. These highly trained engineers may have no experience in capacity-constrained environments.
But lately, I've found a few bright spots in the "Data for Good" movement.
This is not exactly “Data for Good,” but there is a bright spot where “Tech for Good” can make a significant difference. In speaking with the BI software company Sisense recently, they arranged for me to talk with two of their clients who are using Sisense software to do noteworthy humanitarian things, in particular, saving lines.
First, a little plug for Sisense because they’ve been so gracious assisting me in finding something good to write. Sisense is a BI (Business Intelligence) software company with a somewhat different approach to BI compared to Qlik or Oracle, for example.They describe themselves as "an analytics platform for builders." Sisense told me that more than 50% of their business is embeddable and OEM BI. Their global customer count now numbers 2,000+.
Sisense combines data discovery, analysis, and intelligence with extreme scalability. With a back end powered by in-chip technology, it allows analysts to blend large datasets from a variety of sources into a single cohesive database. On the front end, users can craft visualizations, reports, and dashboards to collaborate and share information.
Two organizations I had the pleasure to interview were the Indiana Donor Network, and the Crisis Text Line.
Indiana Donor Network - saving lives depends on real-time data
Before 1984, organ donation was fragmented, and those in need perished due to a lack of coordination. A shadow organ economy existed where organs went to the highest bidder. In a bipartisan sense of outrage, Congress passed, and President Reagan signed into law :
On October 19, 1984, the Congress of the United States approved the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA). It not only established the framework for the U.S. organ transplant system but has served as a model for the development of other transplant networks worldwide. Through the establishment of a national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), the law directed that organ allocation on a national basis.
As a result, the formation of regional Organ Network operations followed. There are 58 today, roughly corresponding to states. In the case of Indiana, since it's northern border is opposite some Chicago suburbs, and their southern border is opposite Louisville, KY, the boundaries are logical, not political. When an organ is harvested, there is only a matter of hours before it can no longer be used for a transplant, so the territories are arranged more or less around population centers.
Here’s how it operates (and I’m leaving out some outlier cases). When a patient in a hospital within a network's territory reaches a "trigger" (an assessment that they are near death), a designated person in that hospital calls the Organ Network to alert them to the possibility of an organ donor with just necessary information.
In the case of the Indiana Donor Network (IDN), the operator uses Sisense to pull together a complete medical history from multiple locations (the Network has access to medical records of hospitals in its territory) in a matter of seconds. If it looks promising for a donation, the Family Services group is dispatched to the hospital to both support the family and, if the patient is not a registered door, counsel them about the high value of organ donation.
If the donation is approved, The Network notifies the “List” in Washington with all the pertinent information. It is the List that determines where the organs go, and the Network is solely involved in facilitating the process. In 2019, the Indiana Donor Network had 21,000 referrals. They also have three jets and crews ready 24/7. Just in the Indiana territory so far this year, they've flown over 500,000 miles. The entire operation is run with data, and time is of the essence. A human heart has a lifespan from extract to an implant of only six hours, for example.
Indiana Donor Network also provides AfterCare services to next-of-kin, and participants often become spokespeople for organ donation.
This is just the briefest of descriptions, but Bill Janczak, Manager Information Services at IDN, explained that almost everything that happens involves Sisense. Data quality is paramount. There are flat screens in every room and corridor with Sisense embedded dashboards. Staff availability, timing, progress, all is captured or calculated in Sisense. Having your software product put to use in a life-saving operation is a feel-good for-good proposition.
The Crisis Text Line - every second of data counts
One of the most effective trailblazers in the field of predictive analytics is Crisis Text Line, a global not-for-profit organization providing free confidential crisis intervention via SMS message. The organization's services are available 24 hours a day, every day, throughout the US, UK, and Canada and can be reached by texting HOME to 741741, 85258, or 686868 respectively.
The CTL intervention system aims to mitigate crises by connecting people to counselors who are trained to cool down hot moments. CTL uses Periscope Data by Sisense to analyze text conversations in real-time to conduct this complex analysis and quickly visualize the results. They use natural language processing and machine learning to pull insights from their rich data set and identify keywords in texts to help steer a counselor toward safe resolution. This augments counselors’ conversational abilities and gives them the peace of mind that they aren’t alone. While advanced analytics are valued for their assistance, it is important to the organization that they don’t replace human volunteers with automated responses.
Periscope Data by Sisense has helped the Crisis Text Line team scale significantly in the past year and there are plans to more than double the number of volunteers and conversations again over the next two years. By empowering more end-user so access advanced analytics dashboards, the service can rely on counselors to find more answers on their own and give texters a better experience as the team grows.
Additionally, CTL operates across the US, Canada and internationally. They have regional 'groups or organizations' that partner with them. Each partner keeps and utilizes their data for their individual regions and their specific Crisis Text Line efforts.
"For good" efforts are often gratuitous, and the results are often not sustainable, or even negligible. In an article in Medium, Why Data for Good Lacks Precision, Sara Hooker wrote about technology companies providing software for free:
Equating in-kind donation with “data for good” absolves tech of the responsibility for more meaningful participation.
But I was humbled speaking to these two organizations. There efforts help people directly on a daily basis Having an organization doing truly humanitarian work with your software product is a far greater honor than the common “for good” efforts we see today, which are good for publicity, but not much else. These two organizations apply the technology to offer services that are vitally important.