The Obama Nerds Go NGO

Ted Greenwald checks in with the Big Data brains partly responsible for the president’s reelection:

[S]ome veterans of the campaign’s data squad are applying lessons from the campaign to tackle social issues such as education and environmental stewardship. Edgeflip, a startup [Rayid] Ghani founded in January with two other campaign members, plans to turn the ad hoc data analysis tools developed for Obama for America into software that can make nonprofits more effective at raising money and recruiting volunteers. … In Chicago, Ghani’s hometown and the site of Obama for America headquarters, some campaign members are helping the city make available records of utility usage and crime statistics so developers can build apps that attempt to improve life there. It’s all part of a bigger idea to engineer social systems by scanning the numerical exhaust from mundane activities for patterns that might bear on everything from traffic snarls to human trafficking. Among those pursuing such humanitarian goals are startups like DataKind as well as large companies like IBM, which is redrawing bus routes in Ivory Coast (see “African Bus Routes Redrawn Using Cell-Phone Data”), and Google, with its flu-tracking software (see “Sick Searchers Help Track Flu”).

Working for non-profits doesn’t have the same draw as other Big Data opportunities:

But one thing stands in the way of this vision: a lack of data scientists interested in applying their skills to social problems. … “A lot of the people who have the skills to do this kind of work end up working for Facebook, Google, or the latest online ad network,” [Ghani] says. “[I want to] show them that the same kind of data is available here, and the impact is bigger.”