Leveraging Public Data for Social Impact

The TechSoup Global Network
6 min readDec 7, 2023

By Stephen Jackson, Director, Content and Communications, TechSoup

Stephen Jackson, Director, Content and Communications at TechSoup

Google’s Data Commons presents a unique opportunity for civil society organizations to leverage publicly available data to inform their work, measure their progress, and contribute their own data to present a comprehensive picture of their communities and inform decision-makers.

Recently, TechSoup hosted two virtual briefings to showcase the potential of Data Commons. Read our overview and watch the event recording from the first briefing, Democratizing Access to Data.

The Event

On November 8, 2023, TechSoup hosted an event with technology and food security experts to discuss the benefit of open-source solutions, public data, and how Data Commons enables civil society organizations (CSOs) to combine their data with preexisting public data to produce resources that can benefit us all.

Watch the event below:

Why This Matters

Data is critical to understanding and addressing key local and global challenges. Finding and organizing the necessary data is difficult. Google’s Data Commons consists of three main elements:

  1. Google’s Public Data Commons, which aggregates data from over 200 sources. This data has been normalized by Google engineers so that it can be queried via AI, allowing for faster exploration of the available datasets.
  2. A framework for data publishing that includes a set of schemas based on Schema.org and a set of APIs. Use of these schemas and APIs allows data to be joined across multiple instances of Data Commons.
  3. A suite of tools that allow people to access and publish data from the site. They also allow people to set up their own instance of Data Commons, incorporating their own dataset on top of Data Commons.

With funding from Google.org and in collaboration with the Data Commons team, TechSoup is working to ensure that civil society organizations can access and use the data in Google’s Public Data Commons, publish data using the framework, and use the associated suite of tools to work with the data. Much of this work is visible in TechSoup’s Data Commons instance.

Data Commons: An Open-Source Platform for Good

Emily Ma, Head of Special Projects, Workplace Sustainability, at Google, highlighted the value of open-source solutions when applied to specific “big” problems that many actors are working to solve from different angles. Open source accelerates innovation by allowing people to build on the work of others. It helps prevent the duplication of work and creates an infrastructure and common taxonomy for all those engaged.

There are three characteristics that define an open-source platform:

  1. It’s open and transparent. This means people can access, read, and — depending on the license — alter and use the code.
  2. The source code is shared, which allows people to find and solve issues faster.
  3. Depending on the license used, there exists a great amount of flexibility that allows for widespread use of the technology and its component parts.

Open source is often the best option in these situations:

  • When standardization matters — it can help everyone speak the same language, build on each other’s work, and advance more quickly (especially when lots of tools exist but do not connect with each other)
  • When transparency is critical
  • To solve a huge but distributed problem where infrastructure is needed and no single market player stands out

“In cases where we’re trying to solve for distributed and complex systems problems, with many organizations already involved, it’s best to come together and share in the benefits of building a single infrastructure that we collectively choose to build together,” said Ma.

Examples where open-source data works best include the fruit fly genome and the Open Handset Alliance. An example of the kind of collaborative problem-solving Ma describes includes Google’s partnership with Feeding America, a network of food banks that shared and mapped their data to build a national picture of food needs and resources, which led to lower costs for acquiring food.

Using Public Data to Better Understand the Hunger Crisis

Feeding America is a large network of food security organizations tackling hunger in the U.S., consisting of more than 200 food banks and 60,000 partner agencies. Mark Mollenkopf, Vice President, Digital Platform Technology, at Feeding America illustrated how contributing their data to Data Commons helped Feeding America analyze what had taken years in a matter of minutes.

“[Data Commons] is just a tremendous tool that we would have never, ever have been able to build. Maybe if I was at it for 100 years, but not in the way we’re able to now,” said Mollenkopf. “A really powerful tool.”

Eric Cooper, President and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, spoke about how Feeding America’s cooperative data sharing helped him make data-driven decisions to better serve those facing food insecurity in Texas. To do this, the San Antonio Food Bank participated with the Feeding America national office and other member food banks in a project working with Google and Stanford students to understand the nutritional mix of their inventory and how it compared to the average American diet.

Combining their data with the nutritional components of food, grocery store inventories, and purchase data, they could use the Healthy Eating Index to compare the nutritional qualities of the food in food banks with that available to the average person shopping in a conventional U.S. grocery store. This analysis can be used by food banks nationwide to dispel common misconceptions and demonstrate that food banks and pantries provide a healthy and well-rounded diet.

“It’s just been incredible to be able to share that information so that everyone benefits and not just using the data to solely benefit one organization,” said Cooper.

In addition to the case outlined above, the San Antonio Food Bank used real-time data from Feeding America’s Meal Connect tool to accurately visualize and plan food distribution during unforeseen events. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, data from this tool enabled them to see demand and conduct what became one of the largest food distributions in America.

Sharing Standards and Opening Data Presents Opportunities for CSOs

  • In the past, Feeding America struggled to identify the intersection of hunger and heart disease, pulling in data from the Ohio Department of Health on one side and from the CDC’s 500 Cities Project on the other. In a matter of clicks, Data Commons allowed Feeding America to do just that, leveraging the more than 30,000 normalized datasets that were suddenly available to them. Conversely, all of the data that Feeding America has gathered around “mapping the meal gap” via their instance of Data Commons is now available to the public for future use.
  • Sharing data between organizations helped the San Antonio Food Bank meet multiple needs by collaborating with other nonprofits to address individual problems. It’s also helped track impact beyond the services of a single organization. All of this data, in turn, can be used by small, independent organizations to create things like grant proposals. This is a clear example of what’s possible when organizations share a common framework for publishing their data: The data can be interrogated by many organizations working in the same field, allowing for more pragmatic collaborations that benefit their communities faster.
  • Data Commons provides tools for publishing the data so that it can be in Google’s Public Data Commons. You can see this by typing “food insecurity in the United States” into the search bar in Google’s Public Data Commons to provide information about food insecurity in the United States. The top source for the returned graphs is from Feeding America. The next sources are from the UN, Census, and BEA. (Try it for yourself! Or just click here to see the results.)

Speakers

  • Emily Ma, Google, Head Of Special Projects, Workplace Sustainability
  • Mark Mollenkopf, Feeding America, Vice President, Digital Platform Technology
  • Eric Cooper, San Antonio Food Bank, President and CEO

Get Involved

Interested? Connect with us and others who care about public data and share relevant projects you’re aware of in your region. Reach out to us at DataCommons@techsoup.org.

Want to support this work more broadly? Consider donating to TechSoup.

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The TechSoup Global Network

60+ organizations with kindred missions working together to get critical tech know-how and resources to changemakers around the world. TSGN.org