Wesleyan’s 2017 DataDive: An Exploration into Activism through Data Analysis

On October 27-28, Wesleyan will host our first DataDive event. Similar to DataFest, DataDive asks people to get to know a dataset in a very short period of time. At the end of the weekend, participants present to the information’s owner some important insights and ideas on how this data could be used. However, where DataDive is truly different is its desire for volunteers to understand specifically how their data could be used for good.

The event is run by DataKind, an organization whose name already reveals a lot about its mission. DataKind is a philanthropic group, but instead of sponsoring volunteer work in food kitchens or schools, it searches for people willing to donate their data analytic skills. Called data do-gooders, DataKind wants their volunteers to lend their skills in order to make some significant social change. As written on its website: “The same algorithms and techniques that companies use to boost profits can be leveraged by mission-driven organizations to improve the world, from battling hunger to advocating for child well-being and more.” With this in mind, DataKind runs DataDives in countries around the world. At each event they partner with a mission-driven organization who has applied to work with the coding volunteers.

Wesleyan’s DataDive partner is EveryTown, an organization with a simple mission statement: “Gun violence touches every town in America…. Together, we are fighting for the changes that we know will save lives.” Wesleyan is taking this message a step further, by holding the event in conjunction with this year’s Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns. This annual weekend of panels held for Wesleyan alumni and parents typically focuses on specific global concerns, with this year’s seminar topic being “Guns in American Society” – a subject that falls right into the interests of EveryTown and the DataDive.

What is so interesting about this triple partnership is the opportunity to cover more bases than most other philanthropic or human rights focused events; this event offers the chance not only learn, but do something about the issue under discussion.

Meaning: It can be difficult to educate about a problem and try to solve a problem at the same time. On their website, EveryTown has an “Act” tab that asks volunteers to donate, call congress, call their senators, and show support in a number of other ways. They also have a “Learn” tab that offers fact sheets and infographics on the many ways that Americans die from guns every day. But ambiguous throughout those two tabs is how the necessary changes will take place.

Here’s where Wesleyan’s DataDive meets at an interesting intersection: In terms of technical skills, the event combines learning and doing in one fell swoop. When it comes to analyzing data, you often learn by doing, and DataDive encourages people to just dive right in – meaning, at least, that something is definitely happening.  And by adding in an activist sponsor such as EveryTown, their activist goal gets wrapped into the same all-in-one process.

So the possibilities here are exciting. But their remains another gap between doing and “making change” or “solving a problem.” Whether a problem gets completely solved is a complicated process that tends to be idealistically approached as being one step. Realistically, solving a problem may require one solution, or a dozen different solutions that all need to happen simultaneously. As the push for activism through data analysis continues, it seems likely that the number of organizations like DataKind and events like DataDive will grow, and hopefully they will do something for good. But we need to become comfortable with walking the thin line between the doing and knowing what we are going to do or how we are going to do it. The exploratory nature of data analysis might lend itself perfectly to this, allowing DataDives to bring a new meaning to innovation with data. No doubt, as Wesleyan joins the communities uniting with DataKind, we can know we are helping forge a path with lots of potential – and it will be fascinating to see where it leads.