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Big data for big difference

A government school in Amruthahalli, Bangalore, serves mid-day meals provided by the Akshaya Patra Foundation. When the NGO was searching for a cost-effective solution to deliver food to schools, it turned to data analytics. Photo: Hemant Mishra/MintPremium
A government school in Amruthahalli, Bangalore, serves mid-day meals provided by the Akshaya Patra Foundation. When the NGO was searching for a cost-effective solution to deliver food to schools, it turned to data analytics. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

For NGOs, data analytics is playing a crucial role in becoming more efficient in raising and allocating funds, forecasting trends and planning campaigns

Mumbai: Corporations around the world are using big data to predict the future and to find ways to improve profitability. But even when profits are not the main motive, as is the case with non-profit organizations, data analytics is playing a crucial role.

When The Akshaya Patra Foundation was searching for a cost-effective solution to deliver food to schools, it turned to big data analytics—the process of capturing, managing and analysing massive amounts of data to generate useful information.

“We were taking 34 routes to deliver food to government schools in Bangalore and each route costs us an average of 60,000 a month," says Chanchalapathi Dasa, vice-chairman of Akshaya Patra, which supports government schools with the mid-day meal schemes, feeding over 140,000 children in 10 states.

While analysing the number of vehicles used, the time and fuel consumed on each route, they saw that the number of routes could be reduced by five, which resulted in savings of 3 lakh.

“NGOs are traditional and bring heart into an issue but the hard reality is that heart and intent are not enough. NGOs need rigour of corporates," says Dasa.

“In our country, issues are large-scale, and if an NGO wants to address such a scale, it needs technology like analytics."

Big data analytics has grown to become a must-have tool among companies. By 2020, the world would have generated around 40 zettabytes of data, or 5,127 gigabytes per individual, according to an estimate by researcher International Data Corp. (IDC). Given this scale, no organization can afford to be left behind when it comes to using this resource.

Large non governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation India, Save the Children India, Child Rights and You (CRY) and The Akshaya Patra Foundation are using data to become more efficient in raising and allocating funds, forecasting trends and planning campaigns.

However, making use of the relevant data presents its own challenges for the NGOs.

NGOs collect data on specific issues such as infant mortality rates among girl infants on the day of birth—trends that can vary from one location to another. Since most of the time data is collected manually, discrepancies creep in and the results that emerge are, at best, estimates. The other problem NGOs face is the time lag in the manual entry of data.

“The government collects data on the number of pregnant women, births, etc. This information is captured in print registers, but it takes two to three months to digitize and record the information in an Information Communication Technology (ICT) system, which makes it a challenge to provide the right support at the right time," says Rahul Mullick, ICT Lead at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which works on issues like maternal and child health, nutrition services, vaccines and routine immunization, control of infectious diseases, among others.

To fix this, most NGOs are providing their frontline workers with mobile devices to record data that can be analysed in real-time.

“We have developed apps through which data gets fed into mobile phones. And once you have data captured real time, it is accurate and in an electronic form, ready for analysis," says Mullick.

The Gates Foundation is also using data analytics to determine the success of its pilot projects, which in turn, helps it make the right investment decisions.

For instance, the Gates foundation with its partner BBC Media Action, employed a mobile tool called Mobile Kunji in eight districts in Bihar, which was designed to increase awareness on maternal and child health. By using a combination of an interactive voice response-based mobile service and a deck of 40 illustrated cards, health workers counsel women.

When results from the project were analyzed, it showed that birth preparedness of mothers counselled through the Mobile Kunji were 28 percentage points higher than others.

“This made us increase our investment for this project and we are now working to implement it pan-India," says Mullick. Data is also being used by NGOs to prioritize the projects on which they are working.

Vijayalakshmi Arora, director (development support) with CRY, says data helped her organization focus on issues that needed be addressed immediately. “In Uttarakhand, our interventions have been focusing on education, but the criticality analysis from data indicated that health and child protection are the most critical issues for that state," says Arora.

NGOs such as CRY are also using analytics to get an insight into the behaviour of its 300,000 strong donor base.

“Through data, we have categorized donors based on the denominations they usually donate and the mode of communication they usually respond to. Based on that we customized communication for those groups, and this helped us increase our rate of retention of donors by 6-7% in fiscal 2014," says Anita Sharad, director of resource mobilization, CRY.

At Akshaya Patra, the analytics team looked closely at the cost of raising funds through different means like tele-funding, Internet funding and high-net worth individuals raising funds, and found that more money could be raised through the cheaper modes of Internet and the telephone.

“We have been able to increase funds obtained by liaising over the Internet and telephone to 17% of our total funds, up from the 4% it used to account for two years ago," says Dasa of Akshaya Patra.

At Save the Children India, Sudeep Singh Gadok, director of programmes, is using predictive analytics to prepare for an Ebola virus outbreak, if it happens in India. “We have looked at data to see how quickly it spreads, what kind of funding we will need to mobilize financial, human and material resources," says Gadok.

While most of these organizations have in-house teams for data analytics, some like Gates foundation outsource analytics to organizations like Mathematica. Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIM-B) too has a data analytics lab that helps NGOs free of cost.

“NGOs have a lot stress on their finances and they need analytics to be cost-effective. For our students, it is a good exposure, so it is a win-win," says Dinesh K., head of the data and analytics lab at IIM-Bangalore.

The B-school worked with the Akshaya Patra Foundation on finding optimal routes for transporting food, and has worked with at least 10 other NGOs.

IT industry lobby Nasscom, through its social development arm Nasscom Foundation, is also helping NGOs with their technological needs by helping acquire software. “Most NGOs are grappling with technology, and we hope to bridge the information gap," says Rita Soni, chief executive officer (CEO) of Nasscom Foundation.

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