Doing Good By Doing Data

What began as a happy-hour meetup in a Chicago bar has evolved into a thriving annual conference for social-sector data analysts.

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Data analysis for nonprofits can be a lonely pursuit. “This is an area where people tend to be isolated in their work,” said Andrew Means, a longtime data analyst in the social sector. “A lot of organizations have just one person doing this.”

Three years ago, when Means was working as the director of research and analytics at the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, he craved connection with other “like-minded people.” So Means, then 27, put out feelers on Twitter and Facebook for other techie do-gooders, and suggested they meet for happy hour at a bar called Rocky’s Chicago. That first “Data Drinks” event, in May 2012, drew 10 people — and “it grew very quickly,” Means said. “A lot of people were missing how revolutionary the topic was for the sector.”

Eventually, participants formed a group called Data Analysts for Social Good. A few months later, Means was returning from an industry meeting when an idea struck him: Since some data conferences were “poorly done,” why not start his own? “Literally, I was on the plane back from another conference when I drafted out the idea,” Means said. “I think the way I was approaching the issue was resonating with people. We could do a better job.”

Means — who had dabbled in live event production — planned 2013’s inaugural, one-day Do Good Data conference on his own. His ethos was simple: “Keep it bare bones.” He lined up a dozen speakers and offered $80 tickets on Eventbrite. “The event sold out five weeks beforehand,” Means said, and 120 people showed up at the Harris School at the University of Chicago for sessions such as “Building Maps With Google Fusion Tables.”

Means had hit an untapped market. Over the next two years, Do Good Data scaled up. The 2014 event lasted a day-and-a-half and attracted 375 people to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Student Center East; the two-day Do Good Data 2015 drew 650 attendees to the UIC Forum.

Means now works with a team to plan the conference, and they’ve run into some familiar meeting-planning conundrums — from securing the right-sized room block to arranging for ample Wi-Fi for Do Good Data’s ultra-connected attendees. “The hardest thing for me is having bootstrapped this,” Means said. “That’s always the basic risk — the financial risk.”

Two hallmarks carry over from event to event: the absence of a conference booklet or app (“We put some info on their badges, and have a mobile-friendly website,” Means said) and 30-minute breaks between sessions — key networking time. “To walk the halls and see people say, ‘Oh, I have that problem too, and this is how I work around it’ — is really fulfilling.”

When Do Good Data 2016 opens at the Hyatt Regency Chicago next April, Means — now associate director of UIC’s Center for Data Science & Public Policy — anticipates 1,000 attendees. “Data is important to the social sector because it’s how we know if what we’re doing is working,” Means said. “If we want to solve the problems that these organizations are built to solve, we need data to solve it.”

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.