If you’re anything like me, you probably hear a lot these days about how Big Data has changed the way the world works. Experts and amateurs alike cite the likes of Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix — and promise nonprofits using big data that it will help them achieve all their social sector goals.
This line of conversation makes me nervous.
There are massive differences in purpose, definitions of success, accountability and processes to be considered when comparing corporations and nonprofits. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot we can learn from each other, but some of these differences matter.
The same holds true for Big Data. There are real advantages big data can bring to social sector organizations — and there are serious problems that we must work collectively to avoid. So with that in mind, is your nonprofit using Big Data? Should you be?
What is Big Data Anyway?
Before we delve into the strengths and weaknesses of Big Data in the social sector, we need to define what it actually is. The trouble here is that a lot of sources talking about the benefits of using Big Data… aren’t actually talking about Big Data.
With the amount of data that flows through our lives each day, it’s important to get specific about what these things mean — especially if you’re a nonprofit considering using Big Data.
Big Data is defined by the fact that it is high-dimensional — meaning there are lots of variables being collected about each unit of analysis and there are lots of points of collection for each individual unit. (In layman’s terms? Big Data is big.) A handy rule of thumb to keep in mind is that Big Data cannot be stored on a single computer.
For example, if your unit of analysis is a person, for your dataset to qualify as Big Data, it must:
- Collect data on that person more than just once or twice
- Collect a large number of indicators on that person each time it gathers data
Can’t See the Forest for the Trees?
Because this kind of data is so large, complex, and multidimensional, new ways to store, analyze, and understand it are always being developed.
Thinks of Big Data as a forest with many trees. Our minds struggle to grasp the meaning and significance of the forest as a whole, so Big Data analysis takes all the data and reduces it to a few key understandable trees. (This is called dimension reduction. It’s important for any nonprofits using Big Data and something we’ll get into in more depth in upcoming posts.)
Is Your Nonprofit Using Big Data?
Still not sure if what your team is using qualifies as Big Data? The following datasets are frequently used by social sector organizations and are not necessarily Big Data:
- Open data (defined as being publicly available in a machine-readable format, like Microsoft Excel files)
- Mobile data (defined as being collected from a mobile device)
- GIS and/or spatial data (defined as containing latitude and longitude information)
To be clear, I said not necessarily — because Big Data can absolutely encompass any or all of these. The key to whether or not your data is Big Data always comes back to quantity. Many nonprofits use these types of data in smaller amounts, with datasets containing only one observation per unit and easily stored on a home computer. If that sounds familiar, chances are you are not using Big Data.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
In the data world, bigger isn’t always better. If you thought you were a nonprofit using Big Data and have realized now that you’re not, don’t stress! All kinds of data can be useful, valuable, and important — it’s just not capital-b-Big.
In my next few posts, we’ll explore situations where nonprofits using Big Data can benefit, as well as some places where Big Data can be more trouble than it’s worth. Stay tuned.
If you’re a nonprofit, journalist, or social sector organization in need of assistance with data collection, analysis, or communication, Datassist is here to help. Get in touch with us now.