Barring residence under a rock or an other-worldly state of bliss, it is unlikely that you have escaped the phenomenon of “big data.” What is big data? Everyone knows that, right? Not so much. Gartner offers a helpful definition:
Big data [are] high-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective,
innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight and decision making.
Good! Three very important dimensions, but we’re not quite there. SAS boils it down a bit:
Big data is a popular term used to describe the exponential growth, availability and use of information, both structured and unstructured.
The big data “conversation” reaches into all aspects of contemporary society: from commerce to open government to philanthropy and yes, nonprofits. Many writing about big data understandably begin with quantifying the ever-accelerating mass of information (petabytes! Trillions upon trillions of bytes!) that can easily overwhelm any manager, especially those in a sector where many organizations find it difficult to invest sufficiently in information technology. Yet, the siren call of learning more about our audiences, donors, employees and other stakeholders remains. What opportunities are there to surface new information that might help us run better organizations and achieve our missions?
In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Jacob Harold (President & CEO, Guidestar) suggests nonprofit leaders master "medium data" before tackling big data. There, he acknowledges both the possibility (there are 371 platforms for gathering data about the nonprofit world) and the limitations of big data for nonprofits. He offers three suggestions:
- Don't freak out.
- Focus on what nonprofits have in common.
- Default to openness.
This is a helpful filter for analyzing the potential impact of big data for your organization and worth a read.
Additional Reading and Resources
- Harold’s post appeared as part of a series “How Can Big Data Have a Social Impact?” produced by the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and the HBR-The Bridgespan Group Insight Center on Scaling Social Impact.
- The 2013 Skoll World Forum will host a session (“Big Data. Big Deal?”) on how big data might create value for those in nonprofit and social entrepreneurship.
- "The Hidden Biases in Big Data," HBR: article, video.
- "Sure, Big Data Is Great. But So Is Intuition," The New York Times
- Planning for Big Data, McKinsey Quarterly
- DataKind brings together leading data scientists with high impact social organizations through a comprehensive, collaborative approach that leads to shared insights, greater understanding, and positive action through data in the service of humanity.