Data and the Human Touch

Meet Kevin and “Sophia” (who anonymously shared her story with my team).

When Kevin was in kindergarten he had an organic brain injury, which forced him to have to relearn everything from walking to using the bathroom. There were several years where Kevin struggled in school because his vision was blurry and this made reading normal size print grueling. He could no longer keep up with his peers in the classroom.

One day when Sophia was in fifth grade, she suddenly went blind from an inexplicable disease. Sophia and her family were left confused and concerned about her future in the classroom. Braille books saved her from isolation and she became an insatiable reader. However, she soon encountered the frustrating “accessible book famine” because very few books available were available in Braille.

This reality changed when both Kevin and Sophia learned about the accessible online library Bookshare, an initiative of Silicon Valley technology nonprofit Benetech. With its rapidly growing collection of over 225,000 (and counting) accessible ebooks, Bookshare is the world’s largest library of its kind.

Photo of a boy seated outdoors, holding an iPad in his lap, looking at and touching the screen.
Sixth grader Kevin Leong reads a Bookshare book on his iPad
“This access to books,” Sophia wrote, “has given me [the] wonderful opportunity to flourish despite my disability. I can enlighten my mind, enliven my spirit, and experience what I couldn’t before. In this world, in which I am at an inherent disadvantage, I may now participate and, one day, perhaps contribute to its betterment.”

Every month, our staff receives letters from individuals whose lives have been touched by our work. These stories about the needs in our communities are data points of real, positive change. But do they measure the real impact we’re making in the lives of our beneficiaries? Can attribution hold up when it comes to measuring the human experience of hope, self-worth, or reconciliation?

Data is now a core resource. Tremendous shifts in data availability, access, and use are rapidly transforming our lives, and numbers debates are taking center stage in the development, philanthropy, impact investing, and social enterprise sectors. Like it or not, we live in what Kenneth Neil Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger have coined the age of “datafication,” where many aspects of the world that have never been quantified before are being rendered into data. We’re witnessing how data-driven insights are becoming a prerequisite in decision-making and in the practical work of policy and social service organizations.

Stock graphic conveying the idea of a world globally connected through networks of data.
Image courtesy of the Skoll World Forum
This sea change has triggered a host of heated and controversial topics: from intellectual clashes between GiveWell and Charity Navigator over nonprofit efficacy, through theories of the kinds of information that define the nonprofit sector (medium data, opines Guidestar’s Jacob Harold), to explorations of the interplay between mission-driven and finance-driven data in both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises.

Here’s Benetech’s outlook: we advocate for a human-centered approach to data in the social sector. Data without context has little value. We ask the question: data for whom?  We’re a technology company and strongly believe in the power of information as a force for good. But we’re also a nonprofit with a social mission to empower individuals in complex and often difficult circumstances. Which is why we also argue that it’s dangerous to base decision-making and practical work concerning human growth and development purely on data-driven insights (we prefer semi-automation to automation).

Dominated by engineers and high tech executives, our senior leadership fully accepts the premise that in order to create systemic change we must build the capacity to collect, monitor, and interpret data over time. The data and its related systems, however, can take us only so far.

Our beneficiaries—such as front-line human rights defenders in repressive communities, students with disabilities, and environmental activists—live and operate in complex realities where certain data may be of little value and where measuring impact is messy. When it comes to helping our users, therefore, what matters to us first and foremost is empowering these individuals to prosper and advance their own goals, not so much optimizing for one metric or another that might not even truly measure our mission goals.

Being more adaptive and less rigid also creates the opportunity for serendipity. Consider this: what if your metrics turns out to be irrelevant because your beneficiary adapts your solution or service into something quite different from what you had intended it for?

A case in point comes from our human rights team, who works with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) organization based in a country where the LGBT community faces a hostile social climate and state-sanctioned harassment. Trained to use Martus, Benetech’s secure software tool for human rights documentation to gather accounts of violations and abuses in the community, this group decided to encrypt and backup its members’ list instead. In this instance, evaluating Martus’ impact using standard indicators like the number of human rights accounts (“bulletins”) backed up to the Martus servers—one of our primary indicators of achievement towards measured success—is meaningless. It was more valuable for this organization to safeguard the names and addresses of its members.

Ultimately, applying a human-centered approach to data in the social sector means keeping focus on your mission and knowing your beneficiaries. Treat them more as customers, less as recipients of easily quantifiable social good units. Listen to their needs and adjust course accordingly. Years of working closely with our users have taught us that their circumstances and the goals they are trying to accomplish vary widely.

In the words of Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation, “to find the impact jackpot, you need to immerse yourself deeply enough in context and methods to make a reasoned judgment. You also have to be a little flexible: Real-world measurement often requires a certain amount of creativity.” Even in a world of big data, creativity and intuition still require the human touch.

This op-ed originally appeared on Reuters in partnership with the Skoll World Forum.


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