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The Harvard Startup Helping Nonprofits Make Sense of Their Big Data Through Competition

ERS mentioned in BostInno

Ninety-percent of the world's data was generated in two years. Big-name behemoths like Google and Amazon caught on early, hiring full data science teams to capitalize on the booming trend. For nonprofits and local government organizations, however, the data is growing just as fast, but without the necessary resources to make sense of it.

A startup working out of the Harvard Innovation Lab, and recently accepted into Harvard Business School's Rock Accelerator program, is trying to change that, however.

DrivenData is a for-profit social enterprise that hosts online competitions, with the goal of engaging a global community of data scientists in solving social problems. The startup partners with nonprofits like Education Resource Strategies in Watertown and analyzes what types of data they're collecting, as well as how they can connect that data with the organization's goals.

"We've seen a lot of hackathons popping up," said DrivenData Co-founder Greg Lipstein, a Harvard Business School candidate, "but we're not a hackathon platform."

DrivenData focuses each of its contests on a well-structured, predictive question. For ERS, that's, "What algorithm will allow us to code financial files more accurately, more quickly and more cheaply?" The nonprofit provides school districts with a way to compare their spending to other school districts, as a way of using their resources more strategically. Currently, ERS assigns every line item to certain categories in a comprehensive financial spending framework.

"This task (which we call financial coding) is very time and labor-intensive," wrote ERS Associate Dan Turcza in a letter to competitors. "This limits our ability to provide this analysis to districts."

"People are looking for ways to use their skills to make a difference, particularly when they're learning."

With the right algorithm, however, ERS will be able to offer more school districts' insights, and at a much lower price point. And once that right algorithm is determined, DrivenData will close the loop and work with ERS to leverage it, thereby enabling them to more effectively and sustainably carry out their mission.

That final step is what Lipstein also said sets DrivenData apart from the standard hackathon. "Oftentimes, [with hackathons], it just stops there," he added. "It doesn't get translated into something actionable."

For data scientists, DrivenData provides an opportunity to practice their skills and code for social good.

Lipstein's college roommate and fellow co-founder Peter Bull is a graduate of Harvard's first data science master's program, run by the Institute for Applied Computational Science, where he met their third co-founder Isaac Slavitt. During his time in the program, he and Slavitt realized how hard it is to gain access to real world data sets to practice on that weren't solely focused on the commercial sector.

"They were lamenting the fact," Lipstein said, "that if they were going to spend their time, effort and value, they wanted to do it for causes that would make the world a better place."

DrivenData offers that opportunity, as well as a $7,500 cash prize per challenge — paid for by the partner organization — to be split between three participants.

The monetary prize helps attract students, which Lipstein claimed is the current demographic they're trying to target. "The student population right now is exploding," he said, and not just on a university level. Massive open online course platforms, such as edX and Coursera, or lifelong learning programs like General Assembly have increased the student population.

"People are looking for ways to use their skills to make a difference, particularly when they're learning," Lipstein explained. "Part of our mission, over time, is to show these students that there are interesting challenges in the social sector. We want to attract these people to the government and these social enterprises."

DrivenData's first challenge with ERS went live Thursday. Think you have what it takes to help the local nonprofit? Start putting your data science expertise to use here.

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