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Driving social change and empowering the sector with data

Michael Lenczer Powered by DataWe sat down with Michael Lenczner, Project Director of Powered by Data, to chat about their upcoming conference Transform the Sector and opportunities and challenges for data in the Canadian social sector. A project on Tides Canada’s shared platform, Powered by Data works with nonprofits, funders, and governments to help them better use, share, and learn from data.

What is Transform the Sector and why was it important to organize the conference?
Transform the Sector is an opportunity for those of us working in the social sector who are already using data, to come out of the woodwork and to realize that there are others that share the same curiosity, expertise, and/or passion towards data. It’s also a chance for people interested in beginning to using data in new ways to learn about what is possible, and to meet people that can help them. The reason the three partners—the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab, and Powered by Data—came together to organize this conference was because we have a shared belief that digital data presents new opportunities to do good better.

Powered by Data's Transform the SectorThe conference is sold out—was your team surprised by the demand?
We were confident that the conference would be a success, but even we were surprised by the level of interest. We couldn’t believe that with three weeks to go until the conference, we had already sold out and already had a waiting list of 50 people.

But when we thought about it, we realized that it shouldn’t be that surprising. Everywhere we go, we meet people doing interesting and advanced work within their own area of the social sector. People like Nick Falvo from the Calgary Homelessness Foundation, Seema Taneja from Peel Counts, and Jerry Lanouette from The First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC) are all doing ground-breaking work. We have well-known thought leaders from the Canada, the US, and the UK speaking at the conference, but we’re also excited to share those lesser known stories with attendees.

What are the big data opportunities for the social sector in Canada?
The opportunity I am most excited about is the subject of our second plenary: how we can empower Canadian nonprofits to access non-aggregated records data held by government organizations. That is very tricky work, since there are serious privacy implications, but there are examples both internationally and here in Canada where those records are being accessed and used in safe and responsible ways. As much as any other idea at the conference, we think that it has the ability to transform social services in Canada.

What are the big questions around data and the social sector?
Capacity is a big question, and it’s the most obvious one. How are we going to take advantage of these opportunities if we don’t have the skill sets already in our organizations and we can’t afford to hire them? In general, I think it’s fair to say that we lack the necessary funding to do research and development and to try new things. We won’t be able to improve how we do things if we can’t experiment.

What needs to happen to facilitate a more data-driven society in Canada and who should drive the agenda?
Our message is that we all need to improve our capacity to use data—funders, government agencies, and nonprofits. We all work together already, and we think it will be futile to build expertise in one area, if our partners in the other two areas can’t continue to collaborate with us.

For an individual or nonprofit interested in incorporating data into their work, how can they begin?
There is an increasing set of resources available to nonprofits that want to learn how to use data. Our partners at Stanford University have online resources, especially for organizations trying to understand how to use data responsibly. And the Ontario Trillium Foundation will be launching an online community of practice for organizations to learn and share how to use data. The first step is to start engaging with those resources and in those conversations, and they should see new opportunities to apply data in new ways to support their missions.

For those who can’t attend Transform the Sector, how can they learn from the conference?
We are working to pull the stories together from the conference to share them more broadly. Sign up to our mailing list to be kept in the loop about those.

What is next for Powered by Data?
The social sector has clearly identified that data is an area that they believe is important. We’ve worked with some great organizations in the past, and we’re excited to grow our team to continue to meet this emerging demand, while learning new ways to help organizations use data to increase their impact.

Powered by Data’s Transform the Sector conference takes place on February 23 in Toronto. Learn more at poweredbydata.org.

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