How you can (and why you should) meet some data scientists

Maria Pikoula Maria Pikoula, Research  Assistant at NCVO, tells us how charities can use data to strengthen their campaigns and services, drawing on her work with DataKindUK.

DataKind UK is a charity that wants to bring the data revolution to the third sector. They organise events and projects where data scientists with corporate day jobs offer to volunteer their time to charities and change the way charities collect and use data to better their services and operations.

I put my ‘data science’ hat on, and joined their project accelerator event to see what it was all about. The answer – their skill-sharing meetup events are generally relaxed, of mixed ability and often come with complimentary beer and pizza.

You need to meet some data scientists

Data scientists are people who have:

  • a reasonable knowledge of statistics
  • intermediate programming skills
  • no fear of huge messy data sets (in fact, they love them).

They are becoming sought after in industry, as most companies accumulate data either from their own customers or extracting it from the web. They usually work in marketing, business analytics and finance.

In fact not all of the 80 volunteers attending were, strictly speaking, data scientists. But, they were all enthusiastic about using data crunching, visualisation and exploration to make what would be incomprehensible easy to understand.

What charities want to do with data

All the charities, with very different datasets and aims, had a few minutes to present their case. Volunteers were then free to choose which project they wanted work on. Then we split off into groups and started brainstorming.

  • Age UK Islington want to find out which characteristics make their beneficiaries vulnerable to winter death  ­– this would help them focus their resources and do more for prevention of death and suffering.
  • The Trussel Trust want to use their data on food poverty to inform policy makers and poverty campaigners – their main goal is to put themselves out of business by breaking the cycle of food poverty for good.
  • Auditory Verbal UK is looking for evidence linking the children they work with, Auditory Verbal Therapy, and outcomes

A closer look at funeral poverty

What happens when, in the last year, the cost of dying rises seven times faster than the cost of living?

I joined a small group led by Heather Kennedy at Quaker Social Action (QSA), NCVO members since 2000, who have launched a national campaign to tackle funeral poverty.

Funeral poverty exists when the costs of a funeral are beyond a person’s ability to pay.

QSA’s Fair Funerals campaign is gathering evidence to make a strong case to highlight the high costs and lack of transparency bereaved people face when buying a funeral.

They wanted to know how to use their collected data to look at:

  • the role of local authorities and the increase in public health funerals paid for by the state when family and friends are unable to pay for a funeral
  • whether funeral directors offer simpler options for people worried about money and how transparent they are about their prices
  • the profit margin for funeral services
  • the difficulty of comparing the price of funeral services – they aren’t listed on websites

What we learned

Participants in our round table included:

  • someone who has personally experienced funeral poverty
  • a marketing expert
  • a visualisation expert
  • an open data expert.

Here’s what I took away from the meeting:

  • This isn’t necessarily about ‘big data’ – our data that fitted into 10 printed spreadsheet pages. The data had been gathered through mystery shopping and related to the charging practices of funeral directors and how they communicated their prices.
  • Monitor and use data from web analytics when you’re planning your campaign. The collected data can be used as proof of public engagement at a later stage
  • Open data can be used to ‘guesstimate’ figures that would normally be impossible to find. For example, we can obtain an estimate of total profit made by each funeral home in a particular area through Companies House. Combined with the public records of the number of services provided by each funeral home, we can calculate the average profit made per funeral and compare service providers.

What next?

Quaker Social Action is gathering more data that they will use to make the world of buying a funeral more transparent. Once they’ve finished the mystery shopping, QSA will work with data scientists to create and launch a ‘Fair Funeral Pledge’ for funeral directors, committing them to offering simple options to people worried about money.

What do data scientists get out of DataKind?

I’ve also written about my experiences on the DataKind blog.

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Maria was research assistant at NCVO where she worked on the Civil Society Almanac and other data-related projects.

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