Is using future data tech just a pipe-dream for charities?

Sooraj Shah asks IT leaders in the charity sector whether they can see themselves using future data technology or it out of their reach?

Analytics is helping to combat homelessness by looking at a number of indicators, such as local factors or discrimination by landlords, it is helping to combat malaria by linking surveillance data to climate, rainfall and vegetation big data sets. Meanwhile climate risk analytics is helping to better predict the impact and risks that wind, floods, fires, droughts and other climate disasters pose.

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To think that this is just the beginning is exciting for CIOs and other IT leaders.
There are already new forms of data analytics in development or on the market, such as augmented analytics, explainable AI and graph analytics. With AI and machine learning being incorporated into new forms of analytics, organisations will have more power to make tailored solutions to achieve their particular goals.

But the excitement might not quite be for every type of business; those without the resources to use the latest technologies – perhaps because of their size, or industry, such as the not-for-profit sector. Charities require substantial investment in order to be able to use new tools, and it’s not just about investment either.

Jeff Bernson, the chief data officer of PATH, a global not-for-profit that works to accelerate health equity by working with others to solve the world’s most pressing health challenges, says that one of the biggest issues is around talent.

“Data scientists are expensive and sought after like NFL quarterbacks, and it’s tough to attract them to the social sector but we’ve had some success in partnering with the private sector to give us some of the talent that we need,” he says.

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This issue is compounded by another obstacle; the quality of data they have to use – without quality data, some of these more sophisticated products are unusable, and without data scientists and other data experts, it’s harder to ensure that the data is up to scratch.

For PATH, this is a big issue as it works in countries where the level of readiness for data usage varies so greatly.

“Every charity out there will have a myriad of data challenges, frustrating them on a daily basis, and often hindering the important work that they do. Working with data is usually a very complex endeavour, and every organisation could be doing more with the data they hold,” says Carlos Oliveira, CEO and founder of SPINR.

“Traditional data tech and integration products require a high level of investment, both in terms of expensive software licenses and also because they require highly technical skill sets in order to be effective – this often puts them out of reach from charitable organisations that could really benefit from them, creating the ‘pipe-dream’ scenario,” he adds.

But why should this still be the case when the tech industry’s behemoths keep telling us that they’re making their products easier to use, effectively helping organisations to democratise their data?

“The speed of various products and the fact that AI and machine learning capabilities are getting built into them means it’s a matter of course that we will end up starting to use these new technologies,” says Stuart McSkimming, who recently left Shelter, the British charity campaigning to end homelessness and poor housing, as CIO.

“The tools are easier to use and I think [vendors] are doing a good job in terms of democratising the ability to use them – but there are still barriers around cost,” adds Bernson.

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Many of these tools rely on cloud computing, and not-for-profits have to consider the costs of cloud storage. As not-for-profits like PATH are trying to create health intelligence stacks that countries can use, this means a huge amount of scaling – and therefore an increase in costs.

“The pricing structures today have not been set up for that market, and that’s hopefully a barrier that over time we’ll start to see overcome with costs dropping further,” Bernson says.

Costs could also be a stumbling block just because of the mere size of the charity.

Rob Bamborth, an independent IT analyst, is involved in three smaller not-for-profit organisations: an independent lifeboat charity, a regional mental health charity and a community-interest ferry organisation.

“While they have websites, e-commerce, social and CRM capabilities, that is about as far as it goes – but it might be different with larger charities that are more like corporates,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean that the pipe-dream cannot become a reality.

“Future data tech could revolutionise the way charities fundraise, operate and distribute aid to their various sectors,” says Oliveira.

And just because the sector may have to wait a little longer than others doesn’t mean that there is no excitement of what’s to come.

“I don’t think charities have taken on many of the new data technologies yet, If you look at the academic and medical sectors there has been huge progress in using these. However, this is why it’s really interesting to be in a CIO-type role in the charity sector. There are so many tools now that we can more systematically target what we’re trying to do, based on evidence which is really exiting, “ McSkimming says

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