How data scientists are tackling hunger and social change

Data has made businesses more effective than ever – and now its applications are extending to new realms

Volunteer data scientists Hania Adamczyk and Mike Taylor tackle challenges for social change organizations at a DataKind DataDive. (Photo courtesy of DataKind)

Editor’s Note: For December, we are exploring the theme of “giving back to society.” These days, charities are becoming increasingly sophisticated, harnessing the power of technology and data science to deliver their services.

You can’t feed the world with data – or can you? For an organization like FareShare, data can be a vital tool in tackling hunger.

For the UK's largest charity fighting hunger and food waste, the data revolution has the potential to transform the work they do with the nearly 7,000 charities and community groups in their network. FareShare saves good surplus food from retailers and manufacturers across the food industry and delivers it to charity members – from children’s breakfast clubs, to community centres, to foodbanks and domestic violence refuges – operating in more than 1,300 villages, towns and cities across the UK. The food FareShare distributes helps feed more than 484,000 people in need every week.

“Thousands of people live in food poverty in the UK,” explained Ruth Peacegood, Food Sourcing Coordinator at FareShare. “A lot of those people are forced to use food banks, but our work also involves charities that are looking to find an answer to the social problems that leads someone to their door in the first instance.”

For example, a drug rehabilitation charity might bring people in with the promise of a hot meal, and from there offer counselling and other rehab services. For the breakfast club at a primary school, it’s about ensuring students go to their classes with full stomachs and focused minds, helping them to do well throughout the day. Elsewhere, a community organization might provide elderly people with their only real opportunity to socialize each week.

Earlier this year, FareShare started working with DataKind, a global organization and partner of the Elsevier Foundation. DataKind helps mission-driven organizations take data science techniques to the front lines of charitable work.

“Data science techniques transform businesses, so why shouldn’t they transform charities?” said Emma Prest, Executive Director at DataKind UK. “They’re often collecting a lot of data and charities reach people who have fallen off the grid in other ways. They’re often delivering services for a vulnerable population and doing the same thing on repeat. Those elements can add up to a beautiful data science solution because you can make their work more targeted and more efficient.”

Like many charities, FareShare has no shortage of information. “We have all sorts of amazing data in our warehouse management system,” said Peacegood. “We know who our suppliers are, where food goes, what our partner charities do. We just haven’t had the chance to interrogate it before.”

Partnering with DataKind helps FareShare put that data to work, and last week the company took part in a two day DataDive in London that partnered them with volunteer data scientists from companies including Elsevier to tap into the power of that resource.

DataKind, FareShare and Elsevier work together at the two day DataDive in London

That knowledge sharing is a vital part of the process in charities using data science for social change. “Having a company like Elsevier involved helps because it’s been through that journey to become much more data driven,” said Prest. “Through the work we’ve done together, we’ve seen that the challenges that Elsevier has overcome are the same that the non-profits are looking to tackle; when we look at what it’s taken Elsevier to build up their capacity, it’s a similar conversation to the one we have with the non-profits.”

For Ylann Schemm, Director of the Elsevier Foundation, the opportunity to repurpose that expertise is an exciting one. “Historically, charities gather a lot of data,” she said. “When they partner with our data scientists, they can turn that into predictive analytics. When a charity like FareShare works effectively with big data it can really change the way they work.”

Predictive analytics reveals food supply and demand

Predictive analytics can be transformative for an organization like FareShare, as they have found in their partnership with DataKind. Digging into the data on the supply side reveals what types of food are most likely to arrive at one of the organization’s hundreds of depots and from which suppliers. It can show what types of food they’re over supplied with, and the types of food of which they need more.

“The more we understand demand, the more we can prioritize resources,” said Peacegood, “In turn that means we can get charities the food they need to provide better meals and to better serve their own customers.” Their data can help indicate when FareShare is running low on key items, and indicate when they should go to their supply partners and request more stock.

“One thing we’ve seen from the results so far is that demand is outstripping supply and that parts of our supply chain are unpredictable,” Peacegood continued. “We need more food but provision is inconsistent, so we know that we need more supplies on board. We can see which of our depots distributes food quickly. If we receive a large shipment that needs to move quickly – if it’s perishable – we can send it to those centres that can redistribute it straight away and know that it will be used by frontline charities.”

Bringing stability to food supply and understanding which resources are needed where are just a few examples of what data can mean to social change organizations, as Prest explained:

In the private sector you see a lot of emphasis on how data can be used to understand customers. In the private sector, that means looking at who’s going to become a repeat customer. You can use the same logic to identify who is going to become dependent on charity services, and move to prevent that if necessary.

By way of example, Prest pointed to the homeless sector. “We’ve worked with a few homelessness charities, and we explored who is not doing well with those services,” she said. “Young men who are care leavers, who interact with the criminal justice system, do not make the progress the charities expect.” That information backed up the anecdotal evidence, and the data revealed the scale of the problem, and the charity set about making changes – more male mentors and support workers and more projects tailored to this group. Having a strong evidence base meant being able to move quickly and make a big impact.

For other charities looking to benefit from the power of data, Prest has a crucial tip. “People say ‘we have this data and we want to explore it,’ but you need to begin by setting out what you want to achieve. Then you’re more likely to arrive at a useful solution. After that, then it’s time to refine the data, clean it up and look at how it can solve those challenges.

“It sounds counter-intuitive, but it when you want to make the most of the data, don’t think data, start with the problem you want to solve. That’s the key to change.”

Working with key partners

The Elsevier Foundation provides over $1 million a year in grants to knowledge-centered institutions around the world, with a sustainability focus on innovations in health information, diversity in STM, and research in developing countries. Our goal is to harness the power of technology to expand these opportunities to underserved communities, through funding as well as in kind support. Learn more

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Fareshare and DataKind are using data to ensure that food charities get the resources they need. Elsevier is partnering with DataKind to create tools that will enable the UK food bank charity Fareshare to better deliver its services. The recent DataKind hackathon is one of various data initiatives supported by Elsevier and the Elsevier Foundation, contributing data and expertise to humanitarian efforts worldwide.

Data — and the people who empower it — can help solve the challenges of the less fortunate.


Ian Evans
Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier in 2011 from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.


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