Jonathon Morgan is a particularly devoted data scientist.
He’s the founder and CEO of Austin-based data science startup New Knowledge, co-host of data science podcast Partially Derivative and a self-identified “do-gooder” who is always looking for ways to put his technical talents to work.
So naturally, he gets a lot of questions from friends and podcast listeners on the same theme: How can I use my data science skills to make a positive impact in the world?
Morgan told GeekWire that, for a long time, his answer was to shrug.
“There was no good answer,” he said — no simple way for a group of disparate volunteers to put time and work towards one goal.
So, of course, he made one. In December 2016, Morgan founded what would become Data for Democracy, a group of more than 1,200 volunteers who are organizing and executing data-based social projects across the country.
Morgan initially set out to create space where data scientists could connect with nonprofits that could use their technical skills.
“We figured there would be about 100 people max,” he said.
It was quickly apparent the group would be much more than Morgan realized, and four months after he founded it, Data for Democracy (D4D) has taken on a life of its own. Its more than 1,200 members have gone beyond lending a hand to existing nonprofits and have organized almost a dozen projects of their own.
This weekend, D4D is hosting its first global hackathon, including a Seattle site led by Galvanize Data Scientist in Residence Jonathan Torrez, physicist-turned-data-scientist George Richardson, and AWS Data Scientists Zach Mueller. The goal is to get work done on several D4D projects and also to get more people involved in the D4D community.
Although the Seattle location is full already, anyone who wants to lend a hand can volunteer virtually, collaborating with other hackathon participants through live streams, GitHub and Slack.
At the hackathon sites, volunteers will work on all manner of data-science related tasks for ongoing D4D projects.
Some of the projects are community-driven, like Election Transparency, which is using public data to monitor the election system for signs of fraud. Other projects are set up with partners across the U.S., including one working to predict traffic collisions in Boston and another analyzing campaign spending data for nonprofit media organization ProPublica.
But possibly the most fascinatingly geeky aspect of Data for Democracy is its organization.
“Most of the coordination happens on Slack, and it’s become almost like an ecosystem unto itself, made possible by Slack messaging conventions,” Morgan said.
That’s right — this group that’s partnering with the likes of ProPublica and the city of Boston is almost exclusively run on Slack, the popular group messaging and collaboration tool.
Morgan said each of the group’s active projects has their own Slack channel, basically a chatroom dedicated to a topic. There are also channels dedicated to connecting people to projects, proposing new projects and discussing technical know-how, like the channel dedicated to Python.
There’s also a “Council of Elders” channel where the group’s most active volunteers coordinate internal organization. But for the most part, the group embodies a rare type of bottom-up style of grassroots organizing.
Anyone who is interested in running a project is encouraged to go for it. That’s how many of the group’s projects have started, as well as administrative elements like its social media presence and protocol for introducing new members.
“There’s almost these organic systems that have developed to make sure the community takes care of itself,” which is a huge element of why it has been so successful, Morgan said.
He said he hopes these projects will have an impact, not just on people and organizations who use the data sets they create, but for the hundreds of volunteers taking part.
“I think it’s pretty great that it’s become a gathering place for everybody who either has a new or renewed sense of civic responsibility. I think that hasn’t really been part of tech culture for a while, and I think it’s a positive thing that’s come out of how nasty and contested that last election cycle was,” he said. “So if we’re a gathering place for people to take that new enthusiasm and make something with it, I think that’s pretty awesome. No matter what they’re doing.”
And in the long run, many of the projects will hopefully have a positive impact on the country as a whole, he says. Many of the projects are releasing their data for public use, including ones that are tracking Medicare expenses, analyzing election results and creating a database on refugee displacement.
“It’s not just technologists. I think in the country as a whole, people are thinking about how they could be participating more in how our democratic process works. And if we can be part of enabling that with technology, I think that would be fantastic,” he said.
As a technologist and scientist, Morgan said he also hopes the project will remind people of the value of sticking to the facts.
“I would love for us to be part of pushing the country in that direction. Everybody interpret facts differently, there’s a lot of things that rely a lot on people’s beliefs and I think we have to work through that. But there are some things that are not up for debate, I think the facts shouldn’t be up for debate,” he said.
Anyone interested in joining the group can sign up on its web page.