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Data a key driver in fight for social justice

Analytics can be a critical tool in the social justice movement, but cultural and logistical hurdles can prevent nonprofits from using analytics to its full potential.

Data is critical to the nonprofit organizations at the forefront of the social justice movement.

Its potential, however, has not yet been fully realized in the nonprofit sector.

Social justice is the concept of fair and just relations between a society and its people as measured by the distribution of wealth, opportunities for advancement within that society, and the privileges granted to some versus others.

The social justice movement -- which encompasses such varied movements as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gay rights, anti-poverty causes and the environment -- meanwhile, is the fight to break down barriers that prevent equal opportunity based on factors such as race, economic status, gender and sexual identity and toxic contamination of the air and water. That fight often means attempting to change policy to create more access to healthcare, public education, social services, transportation and housing.

Data, meanwhile, has the potential to be a powerful weapon in that struggle.

Without analytics, advocates trying to influence the minds of those who make policy must rely mainly on anecdotes. Those individual stories can add up and be powerful, putting faces on issues and giving them the humanity that data -- numbers on a page -- cannot, but it's those numbers that reveal the full scope of a problem.

But despite the potential use of analytics in the social justice movement -- and for nonprofit organizations fighting for any cause -- data does not play nearly the same role in informing decisions in the nonprofit sector as it does in the for-profit one, according to social justice activists.

"As a sector, we're probably 15 years behind," said Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif., dedicated to advancing economic and social equity.

Data is now a key driver of the social justice movement.
Though the nonprofit sector hasn't yet adopted analytics to the same degree as the for-profit sector, data is becoming a key driver of the social justice movement.

The reasons nonprofit organizations don't optimize analytics are myriad. Some are cultural, while others are logistical.

Data is making a difference in the fight for social justice. In recent months, for example, data has helped Black Lives Matter and police reform activists more deeply analyze the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

It's similarly making an impact in the work nonprofit organizations are doing on all fronts, whether fighting for environmental causes, ensuring fair elections or even preventing suicide.

But it could be a more powerful force than it is in the hands of social justice advocates now.

The purpose

While data has been slow to enter the world of nonprofits and social justice, an analytics revolution is going on in the corporate world.

In the for-profit sector, business intelligence drives the bottom line. Enterprises use analytics to discover patterns, find efficiencies, detect anomalies and ultimately make data-driven decisions that drive revenues.

In the nonprofit sector, those organizations that employ data use it differently than in the for-profit realm by using it to further their cause rather than pump up their bottom line.

Nonprofits that use data employ it to help to identify problems and drive the discussion around how to address those problems. They use it in discussions with policymakers at every level, from local municipalities to the federal government, in their drive to change policies. And they use it to appeal to the foundations and donors whose contributions largely provide the capital that enable nonprofit organizations to exist.

If there is a similarity in the way both for-profit and nonprofit organizations in the social justice movement use data, it's to tell a story, to use analytics to create a narrative based on numbers.

"Data has the potential to be as transformative to the nonprofit space as it is to for-profit companies through the same mechanism -- improved decision-making," said Jennifer Redmon, chief data and analytics evangelist at Cisco, where she works with nonprofit organizations through the Cisco Foundation. "You could even argue that data is more important for nonprofits, whose work benefits all of us."

Redmon's work in the nonprofit sector largely centers around suicide prevention, and in particular working to reduce the contagion effect that can result from the way suicides are reported by news outlets.

The data shows that language is important, with terms like "suicided" and "died by suicide" far less stigmatizing than "committed suicide," which she said has a criminal implication. It also shows highly publicized suicides lead to increases in the national suicide rate, and a person is up more likely to die by suicide if they've had a personal relationship with someone else who died by suicide.

Using that data, Redmon and the organizations she works with are able to go to media outlets and journalism schools and try to change the language journalists use when reporting suicides, usually involving celebrities.

In a different area of the social justice movement, housing and income disparity are particularly important data points that can demonstrate how people are mistreated, discriminated against or otherwise harmed in certain areas based on race, ethnicity and economic status.

Other key data points include water quality (Flint, Michigan, for example, where thousands of residents were exposed to contaminated drinking water when the city changed its water source), access to public transportation, which is critical for people who don't own cars, and access to social services.

That data can be used by organizations to present to local governments and work with municipalities to reallocate their resources.

"What we think is really important is reallocation of city budgets," said Neal Myrick, global head of the Tableau Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the big analytics software vendor. "What we mean by that is identifying where the problems are specifically in a neighborhood and then identifying what changes need to be made so that neighborhood can be better served. Making those connections between budget resources and outcomes is incredibly important."

As for racial justice, police data -- while far more publicized than ever before in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, last spring -- has long been a vital data point. Using data about the number of shootings and who's being shot, the number of arrests and who's being arrested, the number of complaints against officers and how they're being disciplined, organizations can discover where there are enforcement problems.

"There are lots of people who work on police data and what can be gleaned from police data," said Afua Bruce, chief program officer at DataKind, an organization that helps other social change organizations work with analytics. "In some states you have to file something with the state to get access to any police data, [but] there's a whole host of … data that when analyzed and presented back can really inform what the access to services and the quality of life is for individuals."

Getting that data that can lead to meaningful insight. Getting it and subsequently putting it to use, however, is not so simple in the social justice movement.


Despite the seemingly obvious benefits of analytics in the social justice movement, organizations working for social justice and other causes face significant obstacles in their attempt to work with data.

One of the most significant is the nature of the data itself.

It's simply not in one place. And in some cases, it doesn't even exist.

In the corporate world, enterprises have their own data to work with. They have sales and marketing information collected over time and can use that to their advantage.

But a nonprofit organization working to ensure that there's clean drinking water in Flint or reduce homelessness in San Francisco doesn't possess troves of internal data to mine.

Sometimes, as Bruce suggested with police data, organizations know where the data is stored but need to file requests with local and state governments to get access to data. But in other cases, the data groups need to inform their cause could be anywhere and could be in many more places than a single location.

The effort it takes to find, collect and curate that data is sometimes far more than a small organization has the capacity to give.

Meanwhile, organizations don't necessarily have personnel with the expertise to work with data or the technological infrastructure -- the BI platforms -- needed to transform and interpret data even if they can get their hands on the information that can inform their cause.

"Largely speaking, the data are hard to come by," Myrick said. "They're pretty inaccessible to anyone other than someone with a data science background, so if you're a small nonprofit in Detroit or Austin or Seattle, the chances of you being able to find the data are slim, and the chances of you being able to access it and use it are very slim."

Similarly, Bruce said nonprofit organizations often just don't have the wherewithal to take advantage of analytics.

"You could teach a class on this," she said. "Sometimes you'll talk to an organization in the social sector and they'll say they don't have data, or they don't know how they're going to get something, or their data looks worse than anyone else's. This is really common."

In an attempt to combat the heavily siloed nature of data in the social justice movement, organizations like PolicyLink and the Urban Institute have invested time and money in curating data that can be used by anyone. And just recently, Tableau and PolicyLink revealed that they are combining forces to develop an Equity Data Hub with which organizations in the fight for racial justice can access structured data relating to racism.

Beyond getting data, there's a cultural barrier nonprofit organizations must overcome -- their own lack of understanding of how data can move social justice and other causes forward.

"Many of them don't actually know how data can help them," Myrick said.

Compounding the lack of awareness of the power of data in the social justice movement, there's a lack of funding.

Nonprofit organizations rely on philanthropy to fund their cause. Philanthropic organizations, however, have been slow to allocate money for analytics. In order to put data to effective use, nonprofits need people with experience in data science and the analytics platforms that can lead to data-driven decision-making, and they need the funds to pay them.

It's hard to find people who want to pay for data scientists to be on your payroll. It's even harder to get them to want to design the data systems which you're going to maintain for 10, 15, 20 years. That's really important infrastructure … just like in a business.
Michael McAfeePresident and CEO, PolicyLink

"It's hard to find people who want to pay for data scientists to be on your payroll," McAfee said. "It's even harder to get them to want to design the data systems which you're going to maintain for 10, 15, 20 years. That's really important infrastructure … just like in a business."

The potential

Analytics is changing what enterprises can accomplish in the for-profit sector, enabling them to make better-informed decisions in real time. Never, perhaps, has that been more evident or more important than this year during a pandemic that has hammered economies worldwide.

Companies have had to use data to examine every aspect of their business, and in some cases completely change what they're doing in order to stay afloat.

Analytics has that same transformative potential in the social justice movement.

Rather than make decisions based on personal experience or anecdotal information, data can drive decision-making. The nonprofit organizations engaged in the fight for causes just need to recognize it.

"Analytics can and should drive better decision-making," Redmon said.

If an organization is looking at potential fundraising campaigns, she continued, analytics can enable it to look at both broad economic factors and those specific to the cause and provide insight into which will campaign will yield the highest returns on investment.

"Through analytics, organizations can move beyond heuristics [experience-based learning methods] based on the past to prescriptive actions based on what's happening today and what could happen in the future," Redmon said.

On the ground, data can be the tool that convinces policymakers that there needs to be change. Concrete information, according to Myrick, can help organizations overcome the preconceptions some in power bring to their positions.

"It allows the change-makers to bring something more concrete and actionable to a city council," he said.

Similarly, Bruce said data has the potential to be that tool that enables an organization to get change done when they might otherwise not have the concrete evidence needed to rally support from within the social justice movement and make convincing arguments to those outside the movement.

"What I think is exciting is that bringing in this technical capacity can really support the ongoing ways these organizations already know how to make change happen," she said. "It's making their jobs easier."

One example, according to McAfee, is how data helped PolicyLink shape the conversation about an equitable economy. With data, the organization was able to discover and subsequently back up its position that economic equity directly affects Gross Domestic Product growth.

"Before, we thought it was just a moral thing to do, but [with data] we could begin to see how it was actually an economic imperative that as the nation changes to a nation of color, that this is no longer just good work, but it's essential for the nation," he said. "It transformed our work."

Meanwhile, change is happening -- slowly, as McAfee said -- when it comes to the use of data in the social justice movement.

Just as more organizations are realizing the potential of analytics, so too are the philanthropic organizations.

"As people realize the amount of advanced analytics and data science that goes into their everyday lives -- what they watch on Netflix, buy on Amazon, how long they spend on Instagram -- they are becoming more aware of the fact that data lives everywhere, including the social justice space," Bruce said.

That realization marks the beginnings of the analytics revolution in the nonprofit sector.

And eventually, just as data is altering the way people think in the corporate sector, it will change how those fighting for causes strategize. Some organizations are already there, putting data to use as they fight for change. Likewise, some philanthropic organizations have also acknowledged the need for technology, enabling nonprofits to invest in the infrastructure needed to use analytics to their advantage.

Next, the data movement just needs to spread further in the social justice movement and the battle for other causes.

"This data revolution is the frontier of the equity movement," McAfee said. "It's given us new insights that are essential. It's helping us get off the political spectrum and ask the tough question of just what must be done. It's given us a chance to reframe conversations. I think that's really powerful."

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