Nonprofits and Big Data: Their Roles in Democracy

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July 29, 2013;, “The Tech Chronicles”


For the past two years, California Common Sense (CACS) has been packaging a lot of government-generated information into usable visuals for people to play with, but it hasn’t been able to put the raw data into a form that researchers can use. Now, the non-partisan nonprofit is opening aggregated government and public data to users, so they can download and manipulate the numbers themselves. The new format allows researchers to manipulate the numbers in order to find exactly what they are looking for, or to answer their exact questions.

“We haven’t had an effective enough mechanism for users to use that data themselves,” says CACS’s executive director. She believes making such information available “allows for more people to join the civic table and promote effective governance.”

The San Francisco Chronicle’s website, SFGate, reports that “CACS had been using a data visualizer to make the previous data more understandable with graphs and charts. Now it is employing a data organizer to help users manipulate the raw data.”

At the same time that government has come under increasing pressure to open up the information it holds to the public, the importance of what has become known as “Big Data” to nonprofits—indeed to all of society—has grown dramatically as the need for metrics to measure effectiveness grows in importance.

Wikipedia defines Big Data as “a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications…The trend to larger data sets is due to the additional information derivable from analysis of a single large set of related data…allowing correlations to be found to spot business trends, determine quality of research, prevent diseases, link legal citations, combat crime, and determine real-time roadway traffic conditions.”

CACS was started by a group of Stanford students looking at ways to help in government and increase the transparency of the public sector.—Larry Kaplan