In tech circles, the term ambient data refers to the information on a computer that isn’t viewed or utilized as a part of normal operations. It’s produced unintentionally — a byproduct of other tasks — without any specific purpose or role.
But what does that have to do with you as a nonprofit?
While technical ambient data probably has very little bearing on your operations, there are other kinds of ambient data out there. Data you are slowly amassing without explicitly researching or evaluating. This information is being generated continually through the daily operations of your organization — and it has real value.
So are you using it?
Marshall Your Resources
I talk a lot about the importance of shared and public data. And earlier this year, I published a series of blog posts on the various quasi-experimental techniques nonprofits and policymakers could use to gather new data.
But something I haven’t really said too much about is the importance of utilizing internal data. Why would I? It seems obvious, really. When you’re thinking about transportation options, you consider using your own car or bike before you start figuring out if you want to take the bus, the streetcar, or the subway, right?
The problem is not that organizations don’t realize they should make use of their internal data before searching for statistics from other sources — it’s that they don’t recognize they have internal data in the first place.
Do You Have Ambient Data?
…“New data” is being generated as a by-product of people’s activities at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. That deluge of passively produced data may hold insights about how, for better or worse, people’s lives are impacted by shocks like volatility in food and fuel prices.
Sound too bold? The United Nations Global Pulse said that in 2011, and the amount of data being passively generated by everything we do has only continued to increase.
Could your organization be unknowingly amassing ambient data? When gathering data for impact analysis or evaluation, are you considering:
- Operational or logistical data like supply levels or program attendance
- Logs that can provide details on how people access your services and changes in demand for various offerings
- Needs assessments or focus group discussions used to develop programming
- Records of information-seeking behaviour — what questions people are asking and how they are reaching out
- Social media feedback or trends that indicate what your community is currently experiencing
- Citizen reporting that highlights unmet need or a looming crisis
All of these sources could be filling your data coffers as we speak — without you even knowing.
How You Can Benefit
Recognizing where you might be generating or collecting ambient data is like finding a goose that lays golden eggs.
The Economist recently announced that data is now a more valuable commodity than oil. Discovering sources of ambient data in your organization is like striking it rich — you gain a useful new resource that is there for the taking and completely free. You simply have to pick it up and put it to work.
Ambient data can stand alone or be combined with internal or public data to further your analysis. It can be used to help:
- Measure the impact of your efforts
- Demonstrate the value you provide to funders
- Make data-driven decisions on new strategies or resource allocation
Need Help With Ambient Data?
At Datassist, our focus is on supporting nonprofits, policymakers, and journalists as they collect, analyze and share their data to make a difference in the world. If you are struggling to identify or utilize ambient data your organization is collecting, we can help. Get in touch with us today to discuss what we can do for you.