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Turning big data into big impact

by Sam McMillan

The buzzword of the year? Big Data. IBM tells us, “Everyday, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data.” Well, that’s nice, but so what? How do we turn data into information? And how do we make that information meaningful? The answer, according to the designers and developers at Tomorrow Partners, is Sparkwise.

Sparkwise is a free, open-source web app designed expressly for nonprofit organizations that visualizes their data in an elegant online display. As Gaby Brink, founder of Tomorrow Partners, explains, “Sparkwise helps nonprofits measure the impact of their work, engage with their communities and share reports with funding partners that illustrate how their support has made a difference.” The impact dashboards Sparkwise creates help social entrepreneurs transform data locked in spreadsheets and visualize it for greater clarity and insight.

Thanks to Sparkwise, Brink says, “Funders get to see live numbers and quality data that reveal the impact their investment makes.” Plugged into a website, Sparkwise can track data from social media campaigns, aggregate data from open data sets and combine that data with good old-fashioned storytelling techniques and video clips. The result: data invested with emotion. Emotion backed by data. In other words, by making every data point part of a story, Sparkwise makes information that matters.

AXS Map is a part of a social movement designed to share information online about
accessible places for people with physical disabilities. The impact dashboard
tracks social media activity and puts video introductions front and center.

Sparkwise is taking off around the world. By last count, there were more than 3,000 organizations using Sparkwise to create impact dashboards. These range from major foundations, research institutes, universities and NGOs, to documentary filmmakers, museums, public broadcasting agencies, civil rights organizations and churches. The Fledgling Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the work of crusading documentary filmmakers, thinks Sparkwise is so crucial to its mission, it requires every one of its grantees to post a Sparkwise impact dashboard.

“If you want to change the culture, change the story,” says Wendy Levy, one of the founders of Sparkwise. Five years ago, Levy was helping documentary film-makers do just that, in her role as a creative director of the Bay Area Video Coalition. The problem, Levy discovered, was there was no real way to gauge the impact these movies were having. To help connect documentary filmmakers with emerging social media technologies, Levy worked with the MacArthur Foundation to launch the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies. This weeklong lab connects social issue documen-tary filmmakers and partner non-profit organizations with designers, coders and mentors in emerging media. According to Levy, “That was the beginning of a five-year arc that took us from talking to making.”

During those five years our culture became increasingly connected, increasingly wired, and with every button click, e-mail, text, tweet and like on Facebook, we collectively generated a tsunami of data. While business intelligence software used our own data to turn us from surfers into customers, Levy thought there might be away to use data to turn people into change makers.

Working with Eric Doversberger, a Google “20-percenter” who was able to dedicate 20 percent of his workweek to the project, the duo articulated a pitch concept of an impact dashboard in 2010. The dashboard was conceived to give NGOs access to simple tools that would provide insight from data. What was missing, Levy realized, was the story. “We had all these charts and graphs but no way to tell a story, get people excited, passionate and motivated.” 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