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Turning big data into big impact

by Sam McMillan

That’s where Tomorrow Partners came in. Building on the initial funding provided by the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Wyncote Foundation and the Fledgling Fund, Brink, chief strategist Nathalie Destandau, user experience designer Carl Bender and software developer David Karam worked on Sparkwise for eighteen months, with the research and Alpha test phase supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Their ultimate goal was to “open hearts and minds supported by real data,” according to Levy.

Like the best software, Sparkwise protects its users from having to learn code. By employing a series of readymade widgets, each with its own built-in intelligence, Sparkwise makes it simple to get started. Connect a widget to an account at Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Google Analytics, drag it onto your board and the widgets go to work, gathering data and automatically displaying it. Data visualization options let you display your data as numbers, percentages, pie charts, heat maps and more. Comparison widgets provide trend-tracking capabilities. Story widgets include the ability to add video, along with explanatory content that puts the numbers in perspective. Call-to-action capabilities are included that enable users to download a PDF, participate in a survey or fire off an e-mail. These engagement widgets turn passive viewers into participants enabling them to become part of the story.

Widgets are dragged and dropped into any position on a dashboard, resized according to impact and grouped according to theme. By incorporating infographics, logos, slideshows and videos, a Sparkwise dashboard conveys a rich sense of purpose beyond raw data. To share a dashboard, users simply publish a dash-board to a publicly viewable URL, or embed the dashboard as part of a website.

When it comes to Sparkwise, seeing is believing. While many of the impact dashboards created by Sparkwise are private, it is possible to see Sparkwise at work on the Barefoot College website. Located in a rural village in India, this nonprofit is dedicated to improving basic issues such as drinking water, education for girls and sanitation in the developing world. The new website was designed by Amplifier Strategies, who sent a production team to India to help Barefoot College tell its story to the world.

Every data point tells a story on the Barefoot College impact dashboard.
Thanks to the Barefoot College Solar Mama project 700 engineers
in 49 countries have electrified 1,015 villages providing light to 450,000 people.

Meagan Fallone, a senior advisor at Barefoot College, invited Amplifier Strategies to India with an agenda. In two weeks, PBS would air Solar Mamas, a documentary that followed Barefoot College’s attempt to bring solar electricity to poor villages around the world. The goal was ambitious. But the methodology was even more audacious. The Solar Mama project planned to bring illiterate mothers to India, train them as solar engineers, and six months later send them back to electrify their home villages. Barefoot College needed a website. And it needed to show the impact of this project. Fallone suggested Amplifier Strategies use Sparkwise to create an impact dashboard.

According to Chantal Buard, creative director at Amplifier Strategies who spearheaded the development team on site at Barefoot College, working with Sparkwise was “easy, and straightforward. You enter social media log-in information, define the social media metrics you want to track, add content and boom, it comes up on your site.” It’s an all-in-one solution “that’s easier than following along using a handful of different aggregation tools,” Buard says.

The deadline seemed impossible; the very idea behind Solar Mamas implausible. And yet, a quick glance at the impact dashboard published by Barefoot College proves otherwise. An astonishing 700 female engineers have been trained by Barefoot College. And thanks to them, 1,015 villages have been electrified with solar power, bringing light to 450,000 people in rural villages. That’s impact. For funders of nonprofits, Sparkwise makes it easy to connect the dots between their dollars and their impact. As Buard says, “Everyone wants to know where their money is going, whether it’s $20 or $20 million.” ca McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at