Google's Data Solutions for Change brings analytics to nonprofits

Google is offering Cloud credits and assistance for nonprofits that are ready to solve big challenges with data.

In the business world, it's largely a given at this point that data should be treated as a valuable resource: It can offer game-changing insights that could transform a business, or even a whole industry.

The same should hold true in the nonprofit world, said Carol Carpenter, Google's VP of cloud product marketing. However, she told ZDNet, "We still see many nonprofits and NGOs challenged with data analytics resources."

Google is seeking to change that with a new initiative, Data Solutions for Change, that supports nonprofits ready to leverage data analytics and machine learning. The program includes three components: need-based Google Cloud credit grants of up to $5,000 a month for as long as six months, self-training lessons with Qwiklabs, and Google Development Support.

Google is prepared to scale up the initiative as much as possible, Carpenter said, and may bring in cloud partners to continue supporting nonprofits. The program is designed for organizations that already have a clear idea of how data and analytics could help them address specific challenges.

For instance, Foundation for Precision Medicine is striving to use machine learning algorithms to determine whether a patient will develop Alzheimer's Disease. It's one of a handful of nonprofits that were involved in the initial pilot.

Equipped with millions of de-identified patient records from across the US, Foundation for Precision Medicine is working to discover trends and patterns that could inform its predictive models. Initially, the organization's founders were working with just their own laptops and an in-house server, leaving them computationally limited and incapable of tapping entire data sets at once.

"We wanted to scale up because we knew we had a good idea," said Ayin Vala, the foundation's chief data officer. Additionally, the organization wanted a more efficient way to collaborate with other researchers.

Google's support has helped on both fronts, Vala said. It also helped Foundation for Precision Medicine gain the momentum it needed to find more financial backers, he said.

"Our work in the nonprofit sector is somewhat similar to early stage startups," he said. "Early on you need a proof of concept or some kind of traction to gain interest from [investors]. Then you have a chicken-egg problem -- you need a proof of concept to raise funds, and you need funding to develop a proof of concept."

Google's Data Solutions for Change is also backing the South African not-for-profit Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. The seven-year-old social enterprise had successfully helped find work for 50,000 underprivileged youth in South Africa. But with millions of young South Africans still looking for work, the organization was ready to re-imagine its mission on a larger scale.

"We have essentially over the last two years embarked on a journey to digitize our services... using data to try to provide personalized services to young people," explained Harambee CIO Evan Jones.

The organization collects data from digital applications as well as phone and in-person interviews to build an "employability map." Its data points include basic demographic details, education and work experience, and even evaluations of a candidate's personal attributes such as energy levels and resilience. With close to 1.4 million applicants in its program, Harambee has hefty data sets to work with.

"Over seven years we collected the data points and an understanding of who succeeds in what jobs," said Navid Erfani-Ghadimi, Harambee's executive enterprise architect. The organization can determine, for instance, whether a job candidate lives too far away from a place of work to have a strong chance of success. Harambee has used a range of Google Cloud tools to leverage its data, including App Engine, BigQuery and Cloud SQL.

Like Foundation for Precision Medicine, Jones said Harambee used Google's help to overcome challenges typical for both nonprofit and for-profit entities.

"The timing of the engagement couldn't have been better," Jones said. "Whether or not we were on a technology transformation, we have gone through huge change. We had to rip out seven years of legacy systems.... With that change is a lot of disruption."