A scene from the data.org launch at the World Economic Forum annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland. Photo by: Katherine Townsend via Twitter

SAN FRANCISCO — On Thursday, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth unveiled data.org, a platform for partnerships that aims to build the field of data science for social impact.

At an event at the World Economic Forum annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland, leaders from both organizations spoke about the evolution of their 5-year $50 million Data Science for Social Impact Collaborative, which they launched at the same event one year ago.

"My goal is to bring together partners that are truly collaborative regardless of how they join the partnership. We don't make a distinction between implementing partners, frontline partners, or funding partners.”

— Katherine Townsend, chief operating officer, data.org

After reflecting on the best ways to build the field of data science for social impact, the two partners decided on a $10 million impact challenge to crowdsource data science solutions for the social sector, which was announced Thursday but will launch in March.

"The mission and vision has remained the same,” Katherine Townsend, chief operating officer of data.org, told Devex. “The shift is in the approach."

After launching the Data Science for Social Impact Collaborative a year ago, Mastercard and Rockefeller found that while organizations were on board with the broad goal of helping the social sector be more data science-driven, they were more interested in getting support for specific initiatives.

Innovation at Rockefeller Foundation: Data science for social good

“Everyone talks about the risk of using big data and artificial intelligence ... but there is an equally big risk of not using big data and AI,” Tariq Khokhar, managing director and senior data scientist at the foundation, tells Devex.

"We set data.org up as a platform for partnerships to bring people together around shared problems as part of a broader mission,” Townsend said.

At the event in Davos, Rockefeller Foundation President Raj Shah outlined some of the goals for data.org moving forward.

“We’re going to continue to invest in, build, and highlight important use cases where data science, tools, and predictive analytics can be brought to bear to lift up people who are vulnerable,” he said.

Additionally, data.org will invest in individuals, particularly data scientists focused on public interest applications of their tools, create public goods and resources, and build the capacity of institutions, with a preference for nonprofits.

Mark Lowcock, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, noted some of the challenges of integrating data science into large organizations, let alone entire sectors while speaking on a panel at the data.org launch event in Davos.

The humanitarian system can be described as a “huge amount of action based on lots of prescription based on loads of analysis based on essentially no data,” he said.

He added that it needs to shift toward starting with the data, using that for analysis and prescriptions, then taking action accordingly.

“The huge prize really is to move this whole system from one which isn’t just responding to data to one that is anticipating,” Lowcock said.

DataKind, an organization that connects social good organizations and data scientists, has been a key partner in the Data Science for Social Impact Collaborative. When the collaborative launched in Davos last year, Rockefeller and Mastercard announced that DataKind would receive $20 million in support over five years. Since then, DataKind has been making a shift from working on projects to supporting more organizations around a set of common issues, including community health and inclusive growth, priorities of Rockefeller and Mastercard.

Jake Porway, founder and executive director of DataKind, said a major focus over the past year has been on ways data science and artificial intelligence can improve the effectiveness of frontline health workers.

Speaking with Devex from Davos, Porway said he is excited about the $10 million impact challenge.

“The application process can in and of itself be a really useful dataset,” Porway said.

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It can shed light on the kinds of topics individuals and organizations are focused on, opportunities for collaboration between them, and trends and opportunities in data and artificial intelligence across hundreds or thousands of organizations, he said.

Townsend noted that anyone who wants to ensure the benefits of the data science revolution is broadly distributed can and should participate in data.org.

"My goal is to bring together partners that are truly collaborative regardless of how they join the partnership. We don't make a distinction between implementing partners, frontline partners, or funding partners,” she said. “You need experience, you need training, you need skills, and you also need money. One of those cannot exist independently without the other.”

The new platform builds upon the work of other organizations that are already using data science for social good, but it seeks to unite these efforts in order to build the field of data science for social impact, Townsend said.

Porway welcomed the role data.org is playing by exploring what value it can add, learning from partners, and amplifying best practices.

“A lot of organizations are starting initiatives around AI for the thing they care about,” Porway said.

“The space is so fragmented,” he continued. “There’s too little funding for there to be so much fragmentation. There’s not a cohesive place to say: Here’s what everyone’s doing. Let’s share best practices. How can we build partnerships?”

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.