Inciter | Good Tech Fest 2019
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Good Tech Fest 2019

Inciter on the Road

For the last few years I’ve been looking for a conference where folks who love technology, data, and social services come together to talk about how to collect the right information to improve lives and change the world by finding better ways to collect and analyze data related to outcomes. GoodTech Fest is it.

What is GoodTech Fest?

  • GoodTech Fest is a conference for those doing real life, applied work in the social sector. It’s a great mix of technology nerds and data geeks (both intentional and accidental) and practitioners. The conference speakers do a great job of making all three areas — tech, data, social practice — accessible. Topics are strategic and practical at the same time. This year that included things such as how to ensure data quality, how to improve data literacy and data maturity in your organization, working with journey maps to develop technology products for your clients, and how to grapple with collecting data that will show outcomes for your services.

Who is it for? Who was there?

  • There were evaluators and software developers, practitioners who run organizations and provide direct services, and strategists and big thinkers, and all are mixing and mingling. The conference is small and there is a lot of interaction across areas. You don’t find the data and technology people in one corner and the people providing the actual services in the other.

What was I doing there?

Three things that made me think:

  • The keynotes at GoodTech Fest were both engaging and thought provoking. Greg Baldwin of VolunteerMatch pointed out that Facebook is a private space. We know that, right? But we expect to have public, unbiased discourse (around politics and other topics) on Facebook. He pointed out that expecting to have a free and fair discussion about public issues on Facebook is like “expecting to hold a protest in someone’s backyard”. Total eye opener for me.  
  • Rob Reich, the author of “Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy”, spoke about how foundations and philanthropists deserve more of a critical perspective than we give them. We are often so grateful (Reich refers to the rest of us as “beggars and supplicants”, which cracked me up) to receive the funding that we don’t think through the implications. Foundations have no accountability. They have no stakeholders, no constituents to vote them out of office, no customers to please. And they have an outsized impact on social issues that are normally the realm of government. He posed the thought that the $400 million that Nike founder Phil Knight donated to Stanford to start the Knight-Hennessy Scholars fund might have been more beneficial to society if he had put a pile of money in the backyard and set it on fire. Wait, what? His point was that burning money is an act of consumption, and would have required a third of the money be paid into the treasury as taxes, where it would be used to improve public services based on some system of accountability. Thought provoking to say the least.
  • During a talk on how to responsibly fund social services that have impact, Andrew Means said, “The amount of resources available to a change making organization should be directly related to the amount of change they are making.” Sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked when funding goes to programs that are chosen based on political will, popularity, or emotional appeal. Measuring how much change an organization is making is difficult, sometimes it feels impossible, but funding based on effectiveness should still be our goal.

Three key takeaways:

  • Data is all about organizational culture and change management.
    • We think about data and performance measurement as a technical task. You identify measures; you develop surveys; you choose a database. But we have seen countless clients who had all those things and still failed to collect the data and use it. Organizational culture is the most important factor (yes, even more than funding) to collecting data and using it. It comes from the top. If the Executive Director doesn’t believe it’s important, it won’t get done. Once you have support organizationally, you have to build capacity. Because who does most of the work of data collection? Frontline staff. And if they haven’t been collecting data, or they need to collect new data, or use new tools, or switch data system, that requires an investment in organizational change. Communicating why it’s important, what’s going to happen and when, and then listening to staff about their concerns to support them in the transition are essential to ensuring that once you have your plan and your tools in place, you will actually have the data you need.
  • We loved Corey Newhouse’s session on building staff capacity (and enthusiasm) for collecting data using Dabbling with Data. Taking the time to do a session with your staff to help them engage with data and data analysis, and to play around with data so they can learn more about how and why we do this work is a great way to increase buy-in among staff for something that is often squeezed in around all their other work. We’ve done sessions in the past where we look at data with staff so they can see the result of their work and so we can understand more about what’s behind the patterns. We plan to include some of Corey’s fun exercises in Dabbling with the Data to take that further and build data literacy with our clients.
  • Data quality and data cleaning are the bedrock of data strategy.
    • I know, I know — no one gets up in the morning and says, “I can’t WAIT to clean some data”. Well, we do, but most of our clients don’t. Again and again the most successful clients we have pay lots of attention to data cleaning and data quality assurance. If you invest the time and energy into having a coherent data strategy, building the right system, and collecting the right information, it can all be for naught if the data is so dirty (including missing, inaccurate, or just AWOL) that you can’t see the patterns that will help you understand what’s going on in your program and tell others about your impact. The fact that GoodTech Fest has sessions on Data Cleaning and Data Quality tell me this is a great place to be for folks actually doing that work day to day.

I’m so excited about GoodTech Fest that I’m planning to present next year in Chicago, and I am looking forward to being with other people interested in applied, real world performance measurement. I have not seen a gathering this balanced (in terms of technicians and practitioners) and useful (in terms of content and networking). Stay tuned for more about next year’s agenda!

Taj Carson
taj@inciter.io

Dr. Taj Carson is the CEO and Founder of Inciter (formerly Carson Research Consulting). Inciter is the home of Incite, a cloud-based, software-as-a-service platform designed to enter, store, and create reports on client data and program activities for nonprofits and social service agencies. Inciter is a firm that specializes in using research, data analysis and data visualization to help organizations raise awareness, raise funds, and tell the story of their impact. Dr. Carson has more than 20 years’ experience working in research and evaluation, and 8 years of experience in the technology field.

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