Jake Porway

Jake Porway, Founder, Datakind

“We have about 20,000 or so volunteers involved/interested in the movement, but the challenge with any volunteer org is having enough work for those who raise their hands.”

Pronouns: He, Him, His

Meet Jake. While working at The New York Times’ Research and Development Lab, Jake began imagining a data without borders that could be a driver in helping to solve some of the world’s most challenging social problems through better collection, analysis, and visualization of data. To that end, he founded the non-profit DataKind in 2011, which has grown to nearly 20,000 volunteers with chapters from DataKind Singapore to DataKind SF Bay Area, DataKind UK to D.C. Jake has a B.S. in computer science from Columbia University in the City of New York , and earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in Statistics at UCLA . You can reach Jason via email and follow him on the Twitter machine.

How Did He Get Into This Work?

“My parents would say, ‘those who have the privilege to know, have the responsibility to act.’”

While Jake grew up in a fairly conservative enclave of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, in his junior year of high school, despite being self-aware that he didn’t look like class president material, he ran for the office. He recalls clinching it with a barnburner of a speech that enlisted fellow classmates into a vision of designing the school that they wanted to see. While he won in a landslide, he quickly got a dose of reality: “There wasn’t a revolution. For the rest of my first year, I had to plan the prom.”

Years later, while working at the R&D lab at the New York Times, Jake posted a call to action on his private blog for data scientists to use their powers for good — to work on such issues as sustainability and social change. The post went viral, with influencers such as Tim O’Reilly spreading it far and wide. Jake was struck how broadly and deeply the post resonated; not just touching developers and computer scientists, but folks across academia and nonprofits.

This led to the launch of DataKind with an explicit MVP: “Take a hackathon and make it social good.” From the outset, Jake had three things in mind that would differentiate DataKind’s efforts:

Test to make it way better; have an impact.
Scope out data problems in advance.
Build WITH orgs, making sure there is a path to follow up; get commitments for next steps.

“Everyone was a genius. Our job was to knock down the barriers.”

DataKind’s very first hackathon was in partnership with the United Nations Global Pulse (UNGP) to visualize its Global Well-Being Snapshot Mobile Survey. The results were so compelling that the group presented its findings to then Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the U.N. General Assembly.

What Does He Do?

As the founder and Executive Director, Jake wears many hats at DataKind. “I beat the drum on vision, culture, and leadership. So much of what I do is also awareness building in the tech/data space; what we see coming. I keep the money flowing in; talk to a lot of funders. Someone has to pay for the vision!”

DataKind has recently gone through a reorganization. Citing Patrick Lancioni, Jake effuses that, “It’s the leader’s job to make sure that the next level of reports… that there is no daylight between them. Everyone needs to speak with the same voice. Those little cracks can become blinding to people down the chain.”

Jake is candid: “I’ve recently been able to get out from under. We set ourselves back, were stalled for two or three years, because I didn’t close those gaps. The left hand didn’t know what the right was doing. Strategy wasn’t getting executed. Everything suffered.”

At this point, Datakind executes about 100 or so projects — with teams of 5 – in a given year. So there are about 500 core members.

While DataKind has worked on global issues, including poverty, homelessness, refugees, and sustainability it can also be hyperlocal. It collaborated with NYC’s Department of Transportation (DOT) in their Vision Zero effort to reduce and end traffic fatalities (an effort which has expanded to include both New Orleans and Seattle).

Worthy projects are selected based on DataKind’s first principles: At the end of the day seeing an org fulfill its mission, its theory of change. “The unsexy end-of-day reality of data science is that we’re about optimization. We can’t come up with the ideas of what they should value. They have to make all of the tough philosophical calls. Oftentimes, because we require some kind of end goal and process to optimize, going through the DataKind process can often elucidate to a partner where they have gaps in their theory of change. We had one group go back and do a strategy session with their funder. They told us, ‘Doing the DataKind process helped us discover that we’re not doing the right thing that we want to do. Just by asking the question, “How to do data science?” made us realize that we’re not doing the right stuff.”’

How Did He Come To Civic Hall?

Jake can’t recall the exact moment, but in the process of just doing tech in New York, many friends and colleagues insisted that he had to meet Micah and Andrew. When Civic Hall’s founders opened at Fifth Avenue in 2015, there was a consensus to work together, “not just to use the space, but to do a partnership.”

What is He Reading?

In his discussion of leadership, Jake praised Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team to the skies.

What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?

“We have about 20,000 or so volunteers involved/interested in the movement, but the challenge with any volunteer org is having enough work for those who raise their hands.”

While Jake is chagrined that his recent work on recalibrating DataKind has meant that he hasn’t been as involved with Civic Hall as he’d like, he does co-host our monthly Machine Eatable event with Microsoft Cities – focusing on the ethics of data. September’s gathering featured a presentation, How to Feed Your Robot: Building Machine Learning Datasets for Social Good.”

And, of course, DataKind is always looking for volunteers.