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Can Data Science Create Social Equity? These Nine Organizations Think So

Michelle No — Journalist

Batista Artimisa Machava owns a small business in Mozambique. But as a low-income gig worker, growing his income is hard.

Batista recently discovered Con-Héctor, a WhatsApp-based virtual assistant dedicated to offering salary insights and free marketing tools to informal workers like him. Con-Héctor helped Batista create a digital CV, an invaluable self-promotional tool he’d never used before. He sent it immediately to a prospective client.

“He evaluated my skills and I [got] a job in Maputo,” he said.

This simple story of real impact on one person—repeated many times over, and in many other forms—may best explain what data science can do for good.

It wouldn’t have been possible without data.org’s $10 million Inclusive Growth and Recovery Challenge (Challenge), which helped Fundación Capital create Con-Héctor. Con-Héctor has now reached over 28,000 users across nine countries in Africa and Latin America. It is just one of many initiatives that Fundación Capital is able to support because of the challenge.

Organized in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, the Challenge was conceived with the goal of engaging the world’s best and brightest organizations using data for good.

Data.org’s ambitious goals were matched with even more interest than imagined: not only did organizations across the globe apply, but partner organizations stepped up to answer the call for funding.

Today, nine awardees offer examples of what data for social impact can look like when empowered with funding, technical assistance, and partnership.

The Search for Breakthrough Ideas

The Challenge, announced in 2020, sought breakthrough ideas that “harnessed the power of data to help people and communities thrive.” The team received more than 1,200 applications, which 400 judges reviewed over 2,000 volunteer hours.

Eight awardees were selected: Aalborg University Department of the Built Environment (BUILD); Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy (BASE); Community Lattice; Fundación Capital, UX Information Technologies, and Data Elevates; GiveDirectly and Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA); Solar Sister; University of Chicago, Data Science Institute Internet Equity Initiative; Women’s World Banking. A ninth awardee was chosen thanks to funding provided by the Paul Ramsay Foundation: University of Melbourne.

“A success metric for us was having a pool of awardees that represented different geographies, different problem statements, and different types of data applications,” said data.org Director of Partnerships Lindsey Gottschalk.

Extending Internet Connectivity to Underserved Communities

The Internet Equity Initiative at the University of Chicago aims to address digital inequity across the U.S. by marrying a technical lens with a sociological one.

Though the problem they sought to solve was technical (how to deliver better internet connection to overlooked and underserved areas), the solution inevitably involved partnering with government officials, non-profit leaders, and local communities.

A panel hosted by the University of Chicago Data Science Institute Internet Equity Initiative (IEI).

“Embedded in this project is an understanding of the importance of trust-building with communities,” says Jess Sweeney, Data Science Institute’s Director of Research Programs and Strategy.

Ultimately, the team aspires for a final software package “that’s open-source and that other cities can use themselves.”

woman holding a phone in her hand
Young woman accessing her financial institution through her mobile phone. (Photo courtesy of data.org)

Creating Financial Opportunities for Low-Income Women

Data.org’s Chief Marketing and Product Officer, Perry Hewitt, says that making digital products available and free to the community is of utmost importance to the team, which believes in open-source access whenever possible.

Transparency is especially important when it comes to the work of awardees like Women’s World Banking (WWB), whose work champions finance for low-income women.

WWB pointed to a $1.7 trillion gender gap that, in particular, left out women with “thin files,” who didn’t have conventional salaried jobs or bank accounts.WWB worked with financial institutions across Colombia, India, and Mexico to audit existing gender biases in loan-granting processes, and then created a “check your bias” report and toolkit, including a gender-fair, open-source algorithm to help spot institutional biases.

In Colombia, where the loan approval rate for women was as low as 25 percent, checking their bias is resulting in new ways of looking at data.

“They’re not just looking at her credit history. They’re looking at the success of her business, whether she has inventory that could be used as collateral, whether she has a large customer base on ecommerce sites,” said Sonja Kelly, WWB’s Director of Research and Advocacy.

Making Career Changing Data Accessible

For awardee Fundación Capital, a non-profit whose work focuses on inclusive finance, improving the livelihoods of informal workers has been a priority. These workers lack the social protections and benefits of a traditional job contract. In Mozambique, they make up 90 percent of the job market.

The Biscate team in Maputo, Mozambique. (Photo courtesy of data.org)

Before applying for the challenge, Fundación Capital and its partner UX had each developed tools – a virtual assistant and a digital job platform. They had aggregated up to five years of data.

“They knew there was a lot of opportunity in this data, but they just didn’t have the time, the resources, or the capabilities, to actually [analyze] it,” said Rodrigo de Reyes Lanfranco, Fundación Capital Director of Digital Solutions and Research.

Using their data.org funding, UX and Fundación Capital combined data warehouses and launched D4WN, a single database whose insights, including salary benchmarking suggestions and other career information, are shared with workers via both platforms, reaching communities often underserved by technology.

“Economic citizenship is presented as a right,” says de Reyes Lanfranco. “But this doesn’t happen in reality.”

Revitalizing Contaminated Properties

Making existing data more accessible is the same ethos that drives Community Lattice, a U.S.-based grantee whose tools predict the cost and risk of brownfield redevelopment projects.

A family in Houston, Texas, United States. (Photo courtesy of data.org)

Brownfields are unused properties peppered across the country. Because the extent of their environmental contamination is unclear, and few local entities have the resources to cover high clean-up costs, they remain neglected eyesores.

That’s where Community Lattice comes in. By pulling data from three public databases—the Federal Registry Service, the Underground Storage Tank database, and a landfill database—the Platform for Exploring Environmental Records (PEER) and Analysis of Brownfields Costs (ABC) tools work in tandem to show the probability of encountering contamination — and the cost to fix it.

“We had this radical idea that publicly available info should be publicly available,” said CEO Danielle Getsinger, referring to PEER’s ability to distill complex information into simple risk gradients.

Community Lattice’s success in bridging consumer needs with government resources underlines the need for greater public-private sector collaboration. “This was a real advance in terms of how many philanthropies thought about the interconnectedness of these issues,” said data.org’s Hewitt.

What’s Ahead

Since the Challenge’s conclusion, more than $30 million in follow-on funding has reached the grantees, ensuring their work will continue beyond data.org’s initial support.

At the same time, the awardees reaffirmed data.org’s commitments around “cases, capacity, and commons,” the team’s shorthand for strategic pillars dedicated to supporting high potential use cases, building the capacity of people and organizations, and transforming the commons with tools, knowledge and resources.

To read data.org’s full Inclusive Growth and Recovery Challenge report on the impact of all nine grantees, visit here.