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Start Talking is a place where we want to raise awareness of key issues that face today’s youth. We will sometimes advocate, sometimes educate, sometimes inform, sometimes ask questions and always invite discussion about the pressing concerns that involve the younger generations of today.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Big Data


Two bags of carrots. That’s what I have in my crisper right now, and now need to figure out what to do with them. It’s not because I have a love of carrot cake. Nor is it related to a craving or even an effort to curb critically low beta-carotene levels. Nope, none of the above. This one is unequivocally a shopping blunder. The result of a poorly planned grocery list and, more importantly, an assumption on the part of our family’s head grocery scout (ahem, me). A preventable error had I simply taken time to check if we had any - to check the “data”, so to speak.

What relevance does the contents of my refrigerator have on…well, anything that concerns you? Believe it or not, it’s representative of my topic today: “Big Data”. The term refers to the notion that we are surrounded by vast amounts of data that can be translated into actionable information.

Big data is all about understanding the plethora of information around us to inform our decisions. For profit companies do it regularly – a great example is an e-reader account I have. I recently had a look through some various e-book options that I thought might be a good read but I couldn’t decide and had to run. Several days later I received an email… “Have another look at ___” it suggested. Furthermore it listed a few other books I might be interested in based on my recent purchases/reviews. And you know what? I bought one of them, right then, on the spot. Remarkable. “This company knows me” I thought. They understand what I like and make it readily available. This knowledge translated into a great read for me, and profit for them. Win-win.

I see the term several times a week in my LinkedIn feed, and even belong to a few groups that are specifically focused on the topic. But despite all this chatter I’ve noticed an interesting gap – it seems, in my experience to date, that the not-for-profit sector has data blinders on. During a speaking engagement earlier this year I asked the audience of around 60 not-for-profit employees if they’d heard the term. The response? Not. One. Hand. I was dumbfounded, and it took my session for an unexpected, albeit extremely interesting, conversation.

Interestingly enough I don’t think this is a case of organizations not knowing how they could benefit, rather I suspect the issue is they don’t have the time. While that may be true, one could easily argue that they must find the time. What could we learn about our program participants, supporters, donors, surrounding agencies, etc. if we took time to really look at the information we have about them? I’ve often heard conversations about how we “think” the participants need this or that, and then develop programs around that perceived need. Sometimes it works great - there are many skilled people who are trained to identify such service gaps and address them, and they do an incredible job doing so. But in this day and age, with information at every turn and tools to at our fingers tips to truly dissect it, there is no reason to ‘guess’. If taking time to understand the information means better serving the participants, raising more money, or building better partnerships, then don’t we owe it to everyone around us to do just that? I know time the most precious (and rarest!) element in the not-for-profit world, but just like spending money on a valuable product, spending time to understand can be well worth the investment.

I didn’t, and ended up with a LOT of carrots – all because I didn’t check the data. By the way, do you know any good carrot cake recipes?


Malcolm McAuley
Manager, Dynamics System
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada

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