The Definitive Guide to doing Data Science for Social Good

Are you a data scientist, and looking for the opportunity to use your skill for social good? Here, you can find some of the options available for using the data science skills for well-being of society.

by Tobias Pfaff (DataLook).

You are a fully-equipped (or aspiring) data scientist and want to use your precious skills for solving problems that really itch the world? Welcome to the club. The good news is that there are many ways for data scientists to do good. However, the path is not always beaten and you might need to show some initiative.  This article will give you some insight on how you can get involved, either through group meetings and events, as a volunteer or in paid positions.

data science for goodSource: flickr

Getting started — online data science competitions

A good place to start (without even having to leave your couch!) are online data science competitions. These competitions allow you to sharpen your skills and to get familiar with different problem types before you get actually involved.

The home of data science competitions certainly is Kaggle. Watch out for competitions that tackle social problems. Examples are the diabetic retinopathy detection competition or the Africa soil property prediction challenge.

DrivenData is a rather new competition platform that focuses solely on social challenges. This makes it a perfect place to test your skills while doing good.

Occasionally, you will find other data science for good competitions. The IBM Big Data for Social Good Challenge was one of them (but beware, you are not free in the choice of tools here).

Another great way to get started is to replicate one of the projects in our #openimpact shortlist (magic ball icon = predictive analytics inside!)

Group meetings and events

A good opportunity to mingle with like-minded folks in person is attending (or starting) a meetup. The following table lists data science meetups around the world with a focus on social good:

Name Creation
Members Past events Location
Data for Good – Data Scientists & Devs doing GOOD 2012 670 13 Toronto
DataKind NYC 2012 2050 22 New York
DataKind UK 2013 1303 9 London
Data for Good – Calgary 2013 358 14 Calgary
Data for Good Montreal – Data Scientists & Devs doing GOOD 2013 140 1 Montréal
DataKind Dublin 2013 489 15 Dublin
Brussels Data Science Meetup 2014 1285 36 Brussels
DataKind DC 2014 620 5 Washington
DataKind SF Bay Area 2014 1118 5 San Francisco
DataKind SG 2014 737 9 Singapore
DataKind Bangalore 2014 503 7 Bangalore
Data for Good 2014 599 3 Paris

Source: Own compilation. Numbers are retrieved dynamically from

You should also keep your eyes and ears open for dedicated hackathons. An example from the past is the Thorn hackathon in San Francisco. Or the Bayes Impact hackathon which happens annually (also in San Francisco).


DataKind is a true pioneer in the field and does a phenomenal job of getting volunteers excited about harnessing the power of data science in the service of humanity. If you live close to one of the DataKind Chapters, you can attend their meetups and further engage in the following ways:

  1. Attend a DataDive:
    DataDives are weekend-long, marathon-style events where dozens of volunteers rally together to help 3-4 social change organizations do initial data analysis, exploration, and prototyping. These events are free for organizations, open to volunteers of all skill levels and take place around the world.
  2. Be among the ones selected into a DataCorps:
    DataCorps is DataKind’s signature program that brings together teams of pro bono data scientists with social change organizations on long-term projects that use data science to transform their work and their sector. These projects last between one to six months and are structured so that volunteers can work in their spare time.

DataKind also hosts a neat “Data Do-Gooding Calendar”.

Do you live in Brazil? Then you might want to check out Data4Good. This initiative works on creating a network of volunteers, produces content to educate around the usage of data for social good (mostly infographics) and provides consulting services for social organizations (more about Data4Good in this blog post).

What if you are not so much into meetups, or if you are living on a remote farm and all you have is a cat, an internet connection and “The Elements of Statistical Learning”?

Well, one thing you can do is look for job descriptions for skilled data volunteers on LinkedIn. However, at the time of writing I got 0 results for “volunteer data scientist” and 1 result for “volunteer data analyst”. However, if “volunteer data entry” is what you are looking for, then there is plenty to do.

If LinkedIn doesn’t get you hooked up with an exciting problem, you should check out the Digital Humanitarian Network. They leverage digital networks for humanitarian response to crises or disasters. It took me a bit to understand their “activation facilitation process”, but it’s a great idea (this diagram helps). You can volunteer through their member organizations who provide data science and coding tasks of different complexity (check out this diagram to see the members’ services).

Some people are even thinking about virtual marketplaces that match up non-profits, local governments or disaster responders with volunteer data scientists. In the same vein, we are currently thinking how we can match up parties on On the one hand non-profit organizations or government agencies who see a project on DataLook and think that it can be replicated to solve their own problem, but don’t have the necessary skills in-house. And on the other hand local or remote data scientists who would be interested in helping to realize the project. If you think this is a great idea or want to discuss this with us, please get in touch.

You see that there are quite a few opportunities for volunteering in the field. But what if you need some dough to pay the bills?