Doing Good with Data and Tech
Two Singapore non-profits help others with the power of information technology
What has proximity to the public holidays and the Central Business District got to do with a blood donation drive? Turns out they impact how many people show up for blood donation drives.
This insight was one of several the Singapore Red Cross learned thanks to DataKind Singapore (DataKind SG). Since 2014, this voluntary group of data scientists, developers and designers have been using data to help the social service sector in Singapore get better at doing good.
The Red Cross was just one beneficiary of the group’s recent “DataDive” in April. Over 70 volunteers spent their weekend huddled in an office crunching data to help the Singapore Children’s Society learn about how professionals and the public perceive child abuse, and also supported O’Joy Care Services in measuring the performance of its mental health programme for seniors.
“Non-profits are often struggling with operational issues. They don’t really have time to step back and see what’s happening,” says Raymond Chan, who leads the Singapore chapter of this global organisation headquartered in New York. “We will try to help them see the bigger picture using data.”
Working with the organisation’s datasets, ranging from databases to surveys, DataKind SG’s network of volunteers use data science techniques to help them better understand their beneficiaries or measure the effectiveness of their programmes. In the case of O’Joy, the elderly care organisation learnt that its existing measurements such as clients’ clinical profile, their social environment, and the performance of counsellors were not indicative of the number of sessions its clients attended for one of its mental health care programmes. With this, O’Joy can ask its sponsor to re-examine these measurements used to determine funding. “The event has scientifically confirmed our suspicion that the current clinical assessment tools we are using is not indicative of resources needed,” says its executive director Choo Jin Kiat.
However, before the datasets can even be analysed, DataKind SG works with organisations to figure out what questions they have and whether they have collected the appropriate data to answer them. Only then can the volunteers come in to prepare the data for analysis during its “DataJam!” sessions, which involves anything from anonymisation of data for privacy, formatting it for consistency, and even manually entering them from printed forms.
With data science still relatively a new field in Singapore, Raymond and his team often encountered organisations that have no data on the issues they want to examine or even the processes to collect them. To encourage Singapore’s social sector to harness the power of data analytics, DataKind SG collaborated last year with the National Council of Social Services to share the possibilities with volunteer welfare organisations. “Now it is at a stage of buzzwords, but it is definitely growing stronger,” says Raymond.
For the data scientist at online retailer Lazada, volunteering at DataKind SG not only allows him do good with his skills, but improve on them too. He has encountered diverse datasets and also learnt from working alongside other volunteers, who range from those that only know how to use spreadsheets to others who carry out machine learning for a living. Meet-up sessions often end up as sharing sessions to learn different tools and data analysis techniques.
Raymond’s advice to social services keen on getting involved with data analytics to improve their work is to be willing to collect data and to listen to what it has to say. “If you have a hunch that something works, it may or may not be true,” he says. “The only way to determine if it is true is to test it using data.”
Assisting PWDs with Technology
A mouse and a keyboard are basic devices for using the computer, but some special needs students at the Rainbow Centre lack the fine motor skills to tap on their small and closely clustered buttons.
Thanks to Engineering Good, this is no longer a problem for them. Last year, the group of volunteer engineers helped the centre develop a USB interface box that maps these input devices to big button switches instead. Funbox makes information technology accessible by enabling the centre’s students to use computers more easily.
Engineering such assistive technology is just one way this non-profit started by Hannah Leong and Jang Leong Chia is helping people with disabilities in Singapore. Inspired by overseas organisations such as Engineers Without Borders, the duo started their local outfit in 2014 so engineers could volunteer their skills for social good. While their overseas counterparts build infrastructure in less developed countries, Engineering Good focuses on hacking, tinkering, and designing technology that helps people with disabilities live independently.
“People with disabilities have a lack of resources and access to technologies that can really help them,” says Hannah. She adds that this relatively small community is sometimes left out in the development of everyday products, and many existing assistive technologies are also expensive. This was why the group designed Funbox as a cheaper alternative to similar products in the market. For another Rainbow Centre student, Andrew, who loves listening to music but cannot operate the buttons of a radio because of his poor motor skills, the group hacked it to be controlled by motion sensors instead.
But their work goes beyond helping people with disabilities, says Leong Chia. “Usually Andrew will need his caregiver to change the channels and adjust the volume, but he is now free to do it himself,” says the senior project engineer at an engineering consultancy. “By empowering the individual it also gives the caregivers time to do other things.”
Besides working with voluntary welfare organisations to develop assistive technologies, Engineering Good’s network of over 100 volunteers also conducts workshops called “We Hack Care!”. This includes teaching the public simple hacks to make electronic products accessible to people with disabilities, and also how small circuit boards such as the Makey Makey can be deployed to help this community find alternative ways to use the computer.
Most recently, the group helped adapt four ride-on cars for children with limited mobility at the Thye Hua Kwan’s centre for Early Intervention Programme for Infant and Children (EIPIC). From moving the accelerator to the steering wheel for children who can only use their hands to adding a head brace for neck support, Engineering Good hacked each of the cars to let the children have the opportunity to ride these toys for the first time.
As the organisation proudly declares on its website:
“For people without disabilities, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.”