Data for Good: A Corporate Perspective

Posted on March 16, 2018

Christine Zhang from Two Sigma’s Data Clinic shares her thoughts on how tech and data science companies can empower employees to lend their expertise for social good.

I once took a trip to a farm as part of a community service day organized by my then-employer, a financial services firm. Clad in company-branded t-shirts, my hapless co-workers and I were a funny sight to behold as we attempted to take care of goats, sheep, and a whole host of other cute but messy farm animals. For a bunch of bankers, it was a nice break from the office and a fun bonding experience. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder if we were making the best use of our time for that farm. Not to knock the company’s well-intentioned initiative (I should note they also made a financial contribution to the farm) or the farm itself (I’ll always have fond memories), but in retrospect, I don’t think much came out of days like that one besides story fodder for the water cooler or, more cynically, PR for the company website.

There is another way for Corporate Citizenship to work. Corporate attorneys, for example, have a rich history of providing free legal services to the community, using their professional skills to serve the public good. Today, lawyers at the top companies tend to log the most pro-bono hours.

It was the “legal clinic” model of skills-based volunteering that inspired some of my colleagues at Two Sigma to start the Data Clinic, a firm-wide initiative that gives Two Sigma’s full-time staff the chance to lend their data science and engineering expertise to non-profits and public sector agencies that need it.

It’s not a typical move for a quantitative hedge fund.

The idea first took hold back in 2014, when Two Sigma employees put their quant skills to work by crunching numbers for DonorsChoose.org, a crowd-sourcing platform that helps public school teachers raise money for supplies. Participants spent a Friday afternoon exploring data on the organization’s past donations and, during the weeks that followed, creating statistical models to predict donor behavior and future project success.

“You were the craziest, most reliable and life-loving group we’ve ever done data with,” said Vlad Dubovskiy, lead data scientist at DonorsChoose.org, in an email to the team after the event.

Sergei Bernstein, a quantitative modeler at Two Sigma, was a supporter of DonorsChoose.org before joining the project team. Looking back, he told me that what he appreciated most was the chance to give back to the organization by applying the skills he used at work. “I felt like I made a much bigger impact than I would have with just a donation,” he said.

Three years and many projects later, the Data Clinic is scaling up. Earlier this year, I joined Two Sigma to work full-time on the team alongside Rachael Weiss Riley, director of the Data Clinic. It’s our job to put together the right projects and teams, creating partnerships in a way that is collaborative, effective, and true to Laurenellen McCann’s civic tech slogan: “build with, not for.”

We are not the only ones to do this kind of work. Pairing data and tech know-how with the social sector has long been the goal of non-profits, fellowships, and volunteer-based groups.

In 2011, New York-based data scientist Jake Porway wrote a blog post challenging data and tech workers to use their skills to take on social issues, rather than just commercial ones. The post went viral, leading to the creation of DataKind, a non-profit that matches data scientists across different for-profit firms with mission-driven organizations. In 2013, Rayid Ghani, Chief Scientist for Obama’s re-election campaign, encouraged student data scientists to think about social good by establishing the Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship at the University of Chicago.

The past few years have seen a groundswell of activity in the data for social good space. Universities across the country have created fellowships modeled after Ghani’s program. Mission-driven start-ups like Bayes Impact and Civic Hall Labs design technology for the public good on a full-time basis. Data science competitions are increasingly tackling social problems, thanks to DrivenData and the annual Data Science Bowl co-hosted by Booz Allen Hamilton and Kaggle. Data for Democracy, an online community of volunteer data scientists, was formed in December 2016 and boasts more than 2,000 members and counting.

As for the private sector, a handful of firms have started doing data philanthropy in various forms—donating their skills (like Two Sigma), their technology, and even their data. Uptake, a Chicago-based predictive analytics start-up, launched Uptake.org to develop technology applications in partnership with non-profits. IBM began its Science for Social Good program to pair IBM research scientists with academics and NGOs. Palantir’s Philanthropy Engineering group lends Palantir’s software to humanitarian organizations. MasterCard’s Center for Inclusive Growth provides subsets of the firm’s anonymized transactions data to researchers and organizations committed to achieving positive social impact. The list goes on.

As the Data Clinic at Two Sigma expands, we hope to encourage a conversation among data and tech firms who, like us, are brainstorming ways to give back by lending their employees’ expertise. After all, most data scientists and engineers work at for-profit companies like Two Sigma, and they likely will for some time. Having corporate backing also comes with distinct advantages. At the Data Clinic, our volunteers are drawn from Two Sigma’s large pool of researchers and engineers; they work on well-scoped projects that make the most out of their existing skills, alongside colleagues that can help them develop new ones; and they often sync up during the workday to keep the momentum going. By using Two Sigma’s existing infrastructure to bring data and tech for good in-house, the Data Clinic makes it possible to build more cohesive, longer-term relationships with our partners.

Data for good began to gather steam because individual data and tech do-gooders felt the urge to do more with their skills. It’s time for the firms that employ them to recognize that they, too, have an active role to play in the movement—as well as an important stake in its future.

Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even get to do a data project in collaboration with that lovely farm.

Learn more about Two Sigma’s Data Clinic here.

To get in touch with the Data Clinic:

dataclinicinfo@twosigma.com

To learn more about the broader data for good community:

https://github.com/dssg/hitchhikers-guide

http://blog.datalook.io/definitive-guide-data-science-good/

https://ssir.org/articles/entry/giving_your_genius_a_new_approach_to_corporate_philanthropy

To find out more about that farm:

http://www.surreydocksfarm.org.uk/