“Take Five” With Jake Porway, Founder and Executive Director of DataKind

It’s time for Take Five– a recurring feature of the Business of Giving with five or so quick questions posed to the leaders of philanthropy, business and social enterprise.  This week’s Take Five is with Jake Porway, the founder and executive director of DataKind.

You can also check the full interview here.

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Denver: Five quick questions. You hate Word Clouds

Jake: Oh… do I ever!

Denver: Why?

Jake: I don’t think we can do this in a lightning round.  But I will say this: data is confusing. You want to communicate data to people in a way that gives them the “So what?” Word clouds to me are like the fast food of information communication. They are like deep-fried spreadsheets.  You look at a word cloud, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, they’re those big words that you say, Obama speech said: “America” –biggest in the middle. And you feel good because it looks cool, and you can kind of understand it. But beyond knowing what the biggest word is, what do you get out of it?

Denver: Tells you nothing.

Jake: It tells you nothing. It doesn’t tell you anything about the sentences; you can’t tell what the content of something is just by the most number of words…

Denver: No, I look at the colors.

Jake: …colors. Yeah! And the colors mean nothing. It’s just a disgrace to actually conveying information…

Denver: Number 2: If you were starting a career as a data scientist and had only one program to work with, what would be your tool of choice, and why?

Jake: Oh, for the statisticians out there, I cut my teeth on R.  And it’s going to offend everyone that has ever trained me, or known me, to say that I think I would say–Python!

Denver: Wow.

Jake: Yeah. It’s a general purpose language; you can program most things, as well as do statistical computing. Start there, and then work your way up to R.

Denver: At DataKind you had a “no jargon” rule. How did that get started, and how do you enforce it?

Jake: Oh, great question! Well, we do use a patented NJR system that is the No Jargon Rule system. We basically make sure we get rid of acronyms across the board. The rule came into practice because our world is bringing together data scientists and social organizations. They’ve got their own terms that neither one knows. And very few people, as Henry Timms from the 92nd Street Y pointed out, who know what both an API and SDGs are. And if you’re scratching your head, this is because you’re probably on one side or the other. So we say…

Denver: I think many don’t know both.

Jake: Yeah! Fair enough, exactly. So, no one wants to be the dumb one.  So we tried to do that for them.

Denver: No, I’ve always put my phone under the table and looked it up. So nobody knew I didn’t know what it was.

Jake: Right on.

Denver: What is the coolest, or one of the coolest data maps you have ever laid your eyes on?

Jake: I’m so dry about this; there are so many flashy, cool data maps out there.  But I always go back to the practical. And I actually think of the old John Snow– cholera– Back then, if people aren’t familiar, it’s a very, very old map during the cholera outbreak. People were like: “How do we stop this?”

Denver: He started data science with that.

Jake: Exactly! He said: “Well, you know, let’s just plot on a map of London where cholera is happening.” And he found real density right around this one water pump. They went, pulled off the handle, and it’s still standing there as a testament to data saving lives.

Denver: And fifth question, final question. Something significant that you’ve changed your mind about in the last five years.

Jake: That’s a great one. I would have to say, I have really come around on–believe it or not–this big data thing. Funny, when I was coming into it, I was trained very much that you build models of as little data as possible.  And it was almost a badge of pride: if you can build a computer system that needs just a little bit of data. And, Lo and Behold!  Having way more data is way more helpful,  and you can learn much more about the world!  So, I switched over. That’s really a kind of wonky thing for the tech nerds out there, but…

Denver: It’s an important one.

Jake: It was a big one for me, for sure.


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6 and 7 PM Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on I Heart Radio. You can follow us at bizofgive on twitter and at facebook.com/businessofgiving.

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