When Data For Democracy meets Refugees Welcome Australia

Sydney Data For Democracy delivers a positive social impact through innovative and collaborative projects from data-driven people. Our outcomes occur on multiple levels: gathering a community of data heroes who can learn from each others and meet like-minded buddies; building the needed bridge between data science and the social sector, which often lack the resources to take on data projects and creating internal projects to raise awareness about social issues with a scientific approach and open-source tools.

Sydney Data For Democracy is part of the global community, Data For Democracy. If you want to join us, check out http://d4d.sydney/join!

Since October 2016, one of our teams — Eugene, Sid and Josh — has collaborated with Refugees Welcome Australia to help them match asylum seekers and hosts in the area of Sydney. How did we join our forces to leverage the power of the data for social good?

At the core of Sydney D4D lie two fundamentals ideas that both reflect the dedication of its community towards a better access of data-driven solutions. This commitment is fed by our backgrounds and aspirations — a bunch of a idealistic yet rational minds, who believe in the power of ideas and voices. These two goals are the following: bringing different fields together to find more innovative solutions and constantly sharing knowledge with transparency and intellectual honesty.

We applied these values in the various projects we have been working on since October 2016. One key consequence is our will to offer long-term support to not-for-profits (NFP’s) and NGO’s. Aside from being an approach that is part of our mission, helping the social sector with their data is critical for its future in a data-driven market.

Why do we need to support the social sector with their data?

The lack of resources for data projects at any level is a known fact among social organisations like NFP’s and NGO’s. While the sector highly needs support in this area for multiple reasons that are at the heart of their mission — measuring their impact, optimising their fundraising, understanding their beneficiaries’ needs, etc. — there is a structural lack of resources allocated to this area.

According to a survey of the Centre for Social Impact, 90% of these organisations cited shortage of funding as the most significant barrier to understand and analyse their outcomes. The second reason comes from the absence of methodology and tools to assist them in this process. In addition of those, the leaders of these organisations have confirmed with us that, if their team has no data hero, there is little chance for them to understand what they need and to set up a data-driven strategy.

How we came across Refugees Welcome Australia (RWA)?

RWA is our first partner in this journey. They are the Australian branch of a global community that seeks to provide safe and welcoming accommodation to refugees. Their mission not only focuses on the primary needs of asylum seekers. It also aims to change mentalities on both sides and create an environment where refugees are not marginalised.

I had met Hannah, the leader of the Sydney branch at the Hackforhomelessness (a hackathon for social good organised by VibeWire andthe Minerva collective) where we had tried to come up with new ideas for their matching platform between asylum seekers and hosts. This dynamic and resourceful team was trying to collect more data and leverage its insights on different levels: supporting the assumptions that certain areas of Sydney had potentially more rooms to provide than others; compiling and understanding the outcomes of their actions and creating an algorithm that could provide the best possible match for hosts and refugees. These different objectives would allow them to support their funding applications but also creating a more efficient strategy when signing up the hosts.

At our very first meetup, they presented us their three main challenges:

  1. Data collection — gathering valuable data for the best match possible between refugees and hosts
  2. Measuring their impact — what proxies can they use to assess the quality of their services to the refugees and the community
  3. Domain insights — what insights can they leverage to target the most relevant areas for their campaigns

During the following months, Eugene, Sid and Josh communicated constantly with the RWA team to find the areas where they could help the most and to suggest ways to use these insights for their campaigns. The two streams that we ended up focusing on were: mapping empty dwellings in the Sydney area with open data and supporting their refugees-host matching process through data collection. We focus in the past months on the first part, finding and mapping empty dwellings in the Sydney area.

Mapping potential dwellings

RWA was interested in identifying dwellings in Sydney that were likely to be under-occupied and could potentially host refugees. Mapping such dwellings could help RWA decide where to focus in recruiting hosts, plus their total number could also serve to demonstrate the feasibility of their approach in the famously housing-poor Sydney area.

Luckily we were able to find the data we needed on the Australian Bureau of Statistics TableBuilder website which allows free access to a subset of data from the 2016 Census. It enabled us to find, by postcode, an approximate number of dwellings with the number of rooms greater than the number of usual occupants. We could also filter out households that were likely unsuitable for RWA — such as those with children (as RWA doesn’t yet have the resources to comply with child safety legislation). The output could then be visualised using Tableau’s freely available mapping tool.

Despite some limitations (such as the inability to distinguish adult vs young children) our ability to gather adequate information once again shows how open data can be useful to community organisations.

If you want to know more, check out the awesome presentation Eugene had done at our meetup in February!

Why did we use open data?

Open data: Open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike. (More info here)

The use of Open Data is part of the DNA of D4D. First of all, we think that there is already a massive amount of great open data out there that is not used and needs to be leveraged. Secondly, we value the transparency of our work and want anyone — inside or outside of our community — to be able to review our work.

What are the results of the first stream?

RWA used the analysis provided to support their projects to local authorities. Having these proof in addition of the qualitative research they had already made helped the project have more credibility.

Our next steps: matching refugees and hosts and education

On the project side, we will communicate regularly with the RWA side to start working on the matching part when they will be ready. This regular catch-up also allows the team to understand how their vision and mission better and thus make suggestions that would be aligned with what they stand for.

On the Sydney D4D side, we realised internally how that collaboration between our volunteers and the organisations could be better leveraged if there was a data hero in the team of our partner.

How could we do that? Sending one of our volunteers in these teams is not a long-term option. Our members are generally here to work on different projects and to learn from each other.

The other path would be to transform one or several members of those team to become data heroes themselves. This means creating educational programs in data to give them the tools to understand what could be done better and how they could use our work in the longer term. This would also imply to invite one of their members in our own D4D team and show her/him the all process of our work.


Working with engaged organisations and communities like RWA is rewarding on multiple levels: we are connected to dynamic people who want to challenge and improve how things are; we work on interesting and sometimes challenging problems and we collaborate with other D4D members who are passionate by the same things, data and social impact.

But our projects and our community are an ongoing process. We need to keep understanding how we want to improve these collaborations and stay close to our values and missions. Giving the capacity to these organisations to take on their data strategy and to understand how they could leverage their services (and thus their beneficiaries lives) is our next step. Stay tuned and send us a message at hello@d4d.sydney if you want to know how we could help your organisation!




Musings of the Sydney Data for Democracy community

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Ethel Karskens

Ethel Karskens

Data Hero by day, Author by night

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