Building a data-driven culture for a sustainable tomorrow

How Brett Jenks and Rare built a global, data-driven culture to inspire community-led change and protect the most vulnerable ecosystems around the world.

Brett Hurt: When many people think of nonprofits, particularly more grassroots global development initiatives, technology isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind. But Rare has had great success integrating innovative technology into their conservation work. You’ve been with the organization for nearly two decades—can you describe for us how that came to be, what it looked like as it was happening, and the benefits you’re seeing now?

Brett Jenks: Rare works in some of the world’s richest places, at least biologically, and we partner with some of the world’s poorest people, at least financially. Our mission is to inspire behavior change so people and nature can both thrive. Over twenty-five years ago, we began measuring that change, usually through questionnaire surveys. We wanted to know how our programs influenced local knowledge and attitudes and eventually behavior. So we surveyed the communities in remote rural areas of the Caribbean, Central and South America, SE Asia, and Africa, and we did this in a statistically valid way before and after every project. This helped us improve our program strategies and of course it helped show our donors we were making a difference.

Over time, measuring effectiveness became a core competency and we helped lots of other partner non-profits learn to do the same. We spent a number of years working to set expectations within the global conservation community that we would all collect and analyze performance data and that over time this new norm would make global conservation more effective. It proved very difficult to create this norm; the environmental community lacks many of the necessary market forces needed to incentivize CEOs and program leaders to spend scarce resources accounting for the actual results. As a community, we’re a laggard, but Rare is pretty serious about impact measures. It’s in our DNA.

Our data-driven culture is best seen in our program operations, mostly recently in our work to restore coastal fisheries worldwide. And we’ve made some major strides in the past couple years. Our Fish Forever team recently published a remarkable report that uses over 600,000 data points from 260 coastal communities collected diligently over five years (with divers counting more than 570,000 fish by hand, while scuba diving pre-determined underwater transects) to show that local waters where we work are measurably (and almost miraculously) recovering.

But we had to make some major changes operationally just to make possible this data gathering. Until very recently, we were heavily reliant on spreadsheets and email and laptop storage as our primary methods of data management. Thanks to the ingenuity of Dr. Steve Box, Dr. Courtney Cox, and George Stoyle, who all joined Rare in the past two years, we’ve been able to transition from this outdated system for data collection, storage and analysis, and inspire staff around the world to kick-start improved global collaboration on data. This has been a game changer for us. We can now standardize and validate data at the entry stage and show outputs in real-time via an online data portal which can be shared among partners, donors, resource managers and governments. Ultimately this saves time and money but, crucially, allows us to interpret data faster and therefore to accelerate learning and decision-making.  

BH: Your work with data is particularly interesting to me, as it’s where our two company missions really intersect. Would you talk a little bit about how you’re using data to connect a global team and drive change?

BJ: Let’s use our fisheries work as an example. Our goal in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Honduras, Brazil and Mozambique is to help coastal communities restore their fish populations, boost their incomes, protect the coral reefs and mangroves on which their economies depend. These are the outcome data and we are literally measuring fish populations underwater, changes in household economics, and the total area under new protection as a result of our work. But to manage the growth of our impact, we need to collect output data as well. So we are tracking funding raised, the volume of fish sold, the number of fishermen registered to fish legally, the number of coastal mayors who have signed on to adopt the Fish Forever model.

What’s really cool is that we can see in real-time how these millions of dollars are moving through remote coastal fishing communities, which were never before considered in national economic models. We can track the signing by local mayors of a global commitment to restore coastal fisheries as each signs up in countries around the globe. It’s powerful to have these evolving data sets to illustrate how we’re literally changing the world.

BH: For such a community-driven organization, making sure that use of and access to this data is available to everyone in your ecosystem (no pun intended) becomes very important, and a defining factor of any project you undertake. At data.world, we call this effort building a data-driven culture. I’ve written before about how CDOs can accomplish this at an enterprise level, but the guiding principles can work at any organization that really embraces them. Really what we’re talking about is openness and connectedness—from open standards and integrated tools to linked data and deep community participation. It all comes down to putting people at the center of data and analysis. Would you please tell us about how the idea of access is changing the way Rare approaches data projects?

BJ: Creating a data-driven culture is a behavior change problem with its own obstacles. Some want to share data; some don’t. Some want to be held accountable; some don’t. Much of the data we gather is about other people’s lives and habitats, and this brings additional responsibilities. Many of our partnerships include data sharing agreements and those can be hard to negotiate absent trust or a mutual commitment to sharing.

Giving access may be the best way to build trust. Once people see their own outcome data, and they begin discussing it with their colleagues, new opportunities emerge, new visions appear, new ambitions get articulated. And all of a sudden people are collaborating to move forward.

I loved the day our fisheries team rolled out a new dashboard to the Executive Team. They said, “Okay, click here and you can start tracking progress across all our major measures in real-time.” That was something I had dreamed about a decade ago. The desire was there, but we were missing a few key tech-savvy scientists and a platform that makes data sharing so compelling.

Today, we have a system established that not only allows us to house our often-disparate datasets under one roof, but also helps us discuss and share program insights, and, crucially, it provides simple, powerful ways of linking and summarizing datasets. The ability to quickly make sense of data from a wide range of sources and forgo the time and effort of managing numerous file formats is critical for accurate interpretation and efficient data-driven decision-making. The ease of integrating data with a number of other platforms, whilst maintaining a live connection to data.world, provides us with a powerful method of dissemination. Data is available in real-time in a comprehensible and accessible format to those who need it, when they need it.

BH: It’s often the case that organizations like Rare need to be pragmatic with both their budget and talent. By opening up your data to your entire network, you not only gain a wider breadth of knowledge cycling through your teams, you gain consistency, speed, and scalability. Would you tell us about some of the technical changes you’ve made to really develop these advantages?     

BJ: This is all still in development, but our team is now building a self-service pipeline so that staff and researchers can dig in and get what they need. We’re creating automated workflows so that data gets where it can be useful with very little cost. We’re creating a data ingest pipeline from a mobile app used by fish buyers so that we can see the coastal fishery economy moving in real-time. Linking all this to a dashboard to help us manage the organization is icing on the cake.

BH: Finally, Rare is very committed to be a leader in developing unique and innovative solutions for conservation efforts. What do you see as the next big innovation data can usher into the great work you’re doing every day?    

BJ: There are several ideas on the horizon. I’d like to produce a one-click carbon calculator that would simply take your credit card and checking statements and immediately tell you your monthly carbon footprint with 80-90% accuracy. I believe this would motivate more carbon offset purchases.

One other practical thing we’re planning is to open up ALL of our conservation data to the rest of the world sometime this summer. We’d like researchers and grad students all over the globe to be able to pick through millions of data points we’ve gathered over the years not only to assess for themselves Rare’s impact on the ground, but to enable new research, new insights and hopefully, along the way, nudge other conservation leaders to do the same.

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