10/25/2012 04:54 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Dawn of the Data Age: Jake Porway, DataKind and the Future of Decision-Making

One of the spoils of life in the 21st century is the vast number of decisions we no longer have to make for ourselves. Jake Porway, the founder and executive director of DataKind (formerly Data Without Borders), likes to remind us of the "dark times," before big data helped guide our decision-making. Renting a movie used to require aimlessly wandering through the aisles of the local video store trying to figure out which generically labeled VHS tape would become the weekend's feature film. Finding the right book used to mean spending hours in the school library fingering through the card catalog and navigating the Dewey Decimal System.

But now, thanks to the magic of data, whenever we want to see a movie, Netflix tells us what we'll like. Even before we know which books are hitting the shelves, Apple's prepared a list of iBooks we'd enjoy. How infinitely simple life has become, and how incredibly wealthy our data is making many big companies.

In the public and social sector, we collect data about everything: our donors, our mailing lists, website visitors, volunteers -- you name it and we probably have information about it. We house it in spreadsheets and databases across departments, but we very rarely share that information, even among members of our own organizations. Unlike our for-profit counterparts, we aren't turning very much of that data into something useful.

Wielding degrees in both computer science and statistics, Jake, an unassuming and startlingly brilliant millennial, is bent on helping do-gooders collect, analyze, and better use information to change the world. After attending some hackathons, Jake noticed the end result was often "more of the same" -- apps to find parking spaces, daily deals, and other creature comfort enablers -- things that arguably "make comfortable lives ever-so-slightly more comfortable."

So Jake wondered, "What if we used data to make better decisions about what kind of world we wanted to see?"

Enter DataKind, a nonprofit based in New York City which brings together data scientists, nonprofit organizations, and data for social good. Within nine months of the organization's founding, they've run three national events, and have had their work featured at the White House, the United Nations and TEDx.

In September, DataKind held their most recent DataDive, in which data scientists partnered with NYC's Parks Department and Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to produce three impressive results: a map highlighting high-risk areas for storms, a detailed analysis of the effectiveness of the Parks Department's pruning program in preventing fallen trees, and an interactive map tracking the diversity of trees across the city.

Thanks to data scientists like Jake, sets of numbers and letters forming complex codes or uninterpretable spreadsheets can now be used to help prevent storm damage in susceptible areas, assess how different species of trees survive across the city, or better allocate limited city resources in dealing with downed trees affecting roadways, power lines, or hapless pedestrians.

And these projects are only the beginning. Jake and DataKind are hoping to work with other organizations that have questions to be answered and data that could lend some insight. By sharing, analyzing, visualizing, and measuring the data we're collecting, we can make our programs more effective. We can see where grant dollars are making an impact and we can better serve our constituents through improved outcomes.

Of course I'm still a proponent of all those for-profit companies using my data to relieve me of the burden of picking out my own movies, but what if the same technology that helps power my movie recommendations could help us better allocate resources for public education? Or highlight areas vulnerable to natural disaster? Or even just help our organizations find the right funders? The social sector still has a long way to go in the big data movement, but imagine what we could do if we approached data with the same creativity and tenacity of a large corporation.

Thanks to millennial leaders like Jake Porway, there's no reason our data shouldn't help us do all of those things.