Statistics Without Borders: providing pro bono services in statistics and data science for humanitarian organisations

Statistics Without Borders Logo 2018.jpg

The H2H Network member Statistics Without Borders (SWB) is a volunteer outreach group of the American Statistical Association, supporting humanitarian actors by providing pro bono services in statistics and data science. They work to improve human welfare through empirical knowledge using the best applications of statistical principles and practices to enable their clients to make informed decisions. Through project based services, they help resource-limited organisations by partnering with them and sharing their expertise.

Many do not understand what statistics can do for them when dealing with a crisis.” – Cathy Furlong, previous Chair of Statistics Without Borders.

Cathy Furlong, previous Chair of Statistics Without Borders, explains in an interview with H2H Network that through her long career as a statistician, she has seen many organisations going too far in their project development without incorporating good statistical practices. This often results in statisticians having to step in to rescue the project later on.

Did you know that research shows that the information-gathering capabilities of some humanitarian actors outstrip their capacity to deal with the information? In the article “Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology”[1] this is explained as an inefficiency with resources wasted on gathering information that cannot be fully processed. It suggests two possible remedies; one, enhancing humanitarian organisations' data processing capabilities - and two, limiting humanitarian organisations' information-gathering ambitions so that they collect enough, but not excessive, information. Ultimately, it concludes that the development of the data and technology process has to be lined up with equal development and evolvement of statistical practices.

SWB works to cover this specific gap. For example, they provide training programmes with professional assistance in structuring a project so that the data collection is done in a way that it can be analysed and used correctly for the population it aims to serve. By pairing experienced professionals with junior analysts to work on clients’ projects, they enhance the application of statistical principles and practices to reach the client’s goals. One of SWB’s primary services includes support in conducting surveys, such as structuring, planning, distributing, and analysing surveys. Their services also include better tables and charts, experimental design, dashboard creation, visual presentations, forecasts, and data analysis. The work of SWB is project-based, and clients are expected to be involved throughout the entire project process.

SWB’s extensive, diverse and talented volunteer base gives a wide range of services. In an interview with Gary Shapiro, co-founder of SWB, he explains that since he founded SWB in 2008, the organisation has grown to consist of close to 1900 volunteers from around the world.

I didn't expect us to be very big. I thought we'd get maybe 30 statisticians interested in volunteer work. I continue to be blown away that we now have 1900 people who want to do this kind of volunteer work”, Gary said.

As an example of the expertise and diverse statistical professional backgrounds, Cathy explains for H2H Network that she has been a maths and statistics teacher for 30 years and then worked as a statistician in Medicare and Medicaid fraud investigation. Gary himself has a background as a survey statistician and worked most of his career at the US Census Bureau and later at other government contracting organisations.

Are you interested in Statistics Without Borders’ pro bono services? Please complete a New Client Questionnaire form, and a New Client Acquisition team member will contact you to help you organise or start a project with SWB, or read more on their website.

[1] Róisín Read, Bertrand Taithe & Roger Mac Ginty (2016), Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology