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Promoting Social Good: How data is being used to address social issues in Calgary

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

For over three decades, the world has moved from one technological advancement to the other. From home internet, to mobile phones, to DNA testing, cryptocurrencies and NFTs, movie streaming services, biometric payments, remote work tools, smart IoT devices and more. There is hardly any industry that has not evolved in the last 30 years, and it is difficult to remember what life was like before we had all this technology at our fingertips. Today, we are talking about electric cars, robotics and artificial intelligence. Depending on who you ask, it would seem like we are seeing Terminator or Star Wars play out. People tend to take strong sides when you ask them what they think about all the technological advancements we are witnessing.

For example, one person may be excited about the prospects of a medical doctor in Boston, Massachusetts conducting brain surgery on a patient in Luanda, Angola without getting on a flight, thanks to 3D medical technology. Another person (like my grand-aunt Lydia), who still hasn’t recovered from having her bank accounts wiped out when she clicked a link she got from her bank (it wasn’t actually her bank though, but nothing we say convinces her otherwise), would tell you that “technology would be death of this generation.” The reality is, depending on our experiences, most people believe technology is a good thing, or a bad thing. However, the reality is that technology is simply a tool. Good actors and bad actors determine if we get a doomsday ending like in Terminator, or if technology helps save the day like in Star Wars. Here in Calgary, we have organizations working to promote the importance of ethical tech and why data must be used for good. Of course, there is the Center for Social Impact Technology…but this article is not about us. It is about Data for Good YYC.

Data for Good (DFG) is a collection of do-gooders who strive to make Canadian communities better through the proactive use of data. It is a national not for profit organization, that works with other not for profit and governmental organizations to harness the power of their data to make more informed decisions in their quest to make their communities flourish. Data for Good started in Toronto, and then the Calgary chapter was launched in 2013 by social entrepreneur–Geoff Zakaib. Data for Good now has 9 chapters across Canada doing amazing work especially in helping non-profits harness their data and derive insights through an event called a datathon. Data for Good YYC recently hosted a datathon with Jumpstart Refugee Talent– a refugee-led not-for-profit founded in 2016. Jumpstart Refugee Talent focuses on the economic empowerment of newly settled refugees in Canada, by providing mentorship and facilitating meaningful employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. The datathon which was held at the University of Calgary this May, provided Jumpstart Refugee Talent with the opportunity to understand their clients and the impact of their work better and how they can be more actively working towards success.

The datathons that Data for Good conducts also provide deeper data analysis and insights such as identifying unique clients, patients, data gaps, possible clustering and data visualization mapping for easy digestion of data and more granular deep dive into datasets. The datathons tend to be a 3-day, one weekend, event but the impact within the organizations last for a lifetime. For example, in 2015 Data for Good worked with the Distress Centre to analyze over 1.2 million records of data gathered over a 12-year period. The distress center was interested in discovering what issues they were most successful at stabilizing, and for correlation between their data and public data sets like deaths by suicide in Alberta and weather records. From the 3-day event which brought over 50 data volunteers, Distress Centre was able to clean up its data and has now built a legacy of data analysis, which has opened them up to increased opportunities for academic research, and more funding for the work they do. They were so convinced of the power of data that they added a data analyst in the organization, and continued to work with the variety of tools they were exposed to during the datathon.

At the datathons, organizations are also connected to an incredible group of data ninjas (a.k.a. knowledgeable data volunteers), who help these organizations look at their data with fresh eyes, prompting new ideas on data gathering and analysis techniques. The datathons are built on the back of volunteers, all with varying experiences working with data but with one passion-the drive to see data used for good. These volunteers build a thriving do-gooder community that continues to evolve even when datathons are not happening; as Data for Good supports microprojects that are driven by the volunteers. In addition, Data for Good often gets approached by non-profits who need help sifting through large amounts of data; and the organization would typically send out a team of 5-10 volunteers to help the non-profit for a couple of weeks.

Data for Good Calgary also hosts a monthly meet-up event which feature the reports and findings from its microprojects, announce new datathons, as well as hosts guest speakers from all over the country like Peter Schyvers (author of Bad Data: Why we measure the Wrong Things and Often Miss the Metrics That Matter). These meet ups are a wonderful opportunity to learn how data can continue to be used for good and to connect with like-minded people within the ecosystem. Data for Good Calgary, now in its 10th year has worked with the Distress Center, Women Distress Center, the Calgary Homeless Foundation, the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation (CCMF), and a lot more that are not released to the public.

Not-for-profit organizations tend to be the last batch of organizations to catch up to technological advancements; due to limited funding and limited availability of resources. They are also sitting on a humongous amount of data that can provide insight into areas where more funding is required, where impact is being made or otherwise. By partnering with these organizations, Data for Good is making sure that every organization can derive insight from its data and make better informed decisions that impact society at scale. Organizations that need to work with Data for Good can submit a project request here. If you are passionate or curious about working with data and helping organizations dissect data, you can sign up to become a volunteer here. You don’t need degrees or certifications, just patience, zeal and an open-mind.


Mervis Elebe is a certified project manager with a background in Communication, and about 7 years’ experience in the IT industry. She is energetic and adept at working in a fast-paced environment and managing multi-cultural and highly functional teams. Mervis has great leadership qualities and often stands as a bridge between technical teams and business users. She is tech-savvy and believes in the power of technology to change the world. She loves to exercise, read memoirs and watch shows on Netflix in her spare time. You can connect with Mervis on LinkedIn here

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