A professor’s curiosity leads to
a new area of nonprofit research
By Malinda Miller (Engl’92, MJour’98)
For information science Assistant Professor Amy Voida, the path to founding a new area of research started with a conversation about index cards.
She was finishing her PhD in computer science at Georgia Tech in the mid-2000s, and a friend was telling Voida about her work at a Phoenix, Arizona, nonprofit.
“She commented that when clients walked in the door she had to look up the services they were eligible for on an index card.
“Wait, did you say index card?” Voida recounts asking.
She was amazed that eligibility for services was still tracked in such a manual way. Her curiosity piqued, this became her research focus for the next decade as she moved through the ranks at several universities.
At each institution, Voida and a team of postdocs and graduate students collaborated with local nonprofits on issues including food insecurity, HIV/AIDS and homelessness.
“We try to diminish the burden of data and increase its power in the work,” she says.
Their efforts established a new area of research—philanthropic informatics—using information science to investigate how data is applied in the nonprofit sector.
“In the culture we live in, data speak and are powerful,” Voida says.
But organizations are under tremendous pressure to collect more and more data—often with disparate requests from private foundations and federal and local governments—without technology that fits their unique data needs or the resources to manage a high volume of data.
Many nonprofit organizations can’t report on the total number of individual clients they serve or present a holistic view of services. “Executive directors can’t productively reflect on the organization’s work because they either don’t have the data they need or it is too fragmented,” Voida says.
At an HIV/AIDS clinic in the Midwest, Voida found that staff are required to track data for clients based on the funder of each service. Since they provide testing, housing, a food pantry, substance abuse treatment and legal consultation, “an individual client could have up to five separate paper files depending on the services accessed.”
Lehn Benjamin, an associate professor of philanthropy at Indiana University, is working with Voida on several projects and says that “while we know the technical is layered with the social and political, I still expected the process of mapping these data systems to be straightforward. It’s not.
“As we mapped hundreds of data points, countless forms, several databases and reporting flows, I realized these systems reflected the evolution of the public policy field and the sunk costs in technology that proved suboptimal in the long run.”
In the short term, Voida and her colleagues have several methods to help clients sort out data. One is to create a data map to show how information flows, where it goes, and then identify duplications and alternatives.
They also work with frontline staff to create data diaries—logs of all time spent entering data—to help executive directors understand the data demands frontline staff confront.
In the long term, Voida and her team are establishing ways for nonprofits to have a voice in policy and building a foundation to develop technologies that fit the needs of nonprofits.
“They shouldn’t have to fuss,” she says. “The technology should work seamlessly. It should support the mission and not stand in the way.”
“We try to