Prescriptive Analytics for Nonprofits—How Data Technology Can Transform the Way We Work

May 30, 2017 Andrew Means

Data is changing how our world operates. As the collection of data becomes ubiquitous and seamless and the analysis of data more powerful, it is changing every aspect of our lives. Just stop and think about how many times a day your life is impacted by an algorithm. That thing you just bought on Amazon, was it recommended to you? That UPS truck that just delivered it optimizes its route to minimize left turns. The show you just watched on Netflix was evaluated by an algorithm before it was given the greenlight. On your run this morning, did you turn on an app to track progress towards your goals?

Digital technology is revolutionizing our lives. But it also has the power to revolutionize the way we create social change. It can not only help us execute our current work more efficiently and effectively but actually create entirely new opportunities to do good.

When people throw around buzzwords like Big Data, Data Science, or Artificial Intelligence, one of the things they talk about is the power of predictive analytics. The ability to see into the future sounds like magic, but there are actual methods that have been proven effective at doing this. However, if we end at prediction, we are often missing out on the value of that prediction. Increasingly people are moving from prediction to prescription.

Prescriptive analytics can transform the way nonprofits work

Imagine you have a decision to make. For example, you must decide which of three interventions should be given to a student at risk of not graduating from high school. Prescriptive analytics will essentially estimate that student’s  likelihood of graduating if exposed to a program and then recommend the program that leads to the greatest likelihood they graduate from high school.

This idea of data technology being assistive and helping us make better decisions is still relatively new, especially in the social sector, but it has the power to transform the way we work.

Similarly, data science methods can help us engage in continuous learning. Traditional social science research is static. Researchers work with data sets, build models, and publish them. Once a model is published it is unchanging. The data that it is based on is unchanging.

Today, we live in a dynamic data world. We are generating data constantly and the models that are built can adapt and improve over time. For example, at beyond.uptake we have developed a tool called Student Union that helps first generation college students better estimate their likelihood to get into and out of schools. As we gain access to more and more historical data from our partners the model updates and improves, getting more and more accurate over time.

I absolutely believe that data is going to change the way we deliver services. We don’t always need more money to have more impact. We can use data to help us better apply the resources that we do have so they can do the most good. Data is a powerful tool that can and should do more than just help companies to get us to buy more stuff. It’s a tool that we can harness to change the world.

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