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A data dive. A hackathon. What are these things, and why do they even matter? 

In February 2013 I attended a conference and saw a presentation by Jake Porway who had set up a charity organisation called Datakind in New York. His premise was that charities have some of the richest information in the world, on issues and events that really matter to people. But they can’t afford complex technology and dedicated analysts to make sense of it all. Companies have lots of technology and capable analysts who could do incredible things with the charity data if allowed. But, though many companies offer corporate sustainability days for staff to use, they are usually spent as a day out of the office digging gardens or painting fences. 

What if we could apply our analyst brains rather than brawn to charity problems? What if we could multiply the value of every donation by advising how best to spend it towards meeting the charity goals, or how to bring more donations in? 

It was a true lightbulb moment. So, with my colleague Keith Goldthorpe, we decided to make it happen in M&S. The benefits go both ways in this sort of activity: the charity gets amazing specialist help while M&S analysts learn and practice new skills while meeting fellow analysts. 

data diveM&S has a fantastic CSR programme so with the support of Plan A, I set about planning the event. It took 12 months from start to finish and there were anxious, hair raising times, but finally it got underway at 8.30 AM on Thursday 9th October at White City. Seventy M&S analysts volunteered to take part and we got expert assistance from our friends at Spotfire, whose tools we used. We chose four partner charities who had suitable problems to tackle: Prince's Trust, MacMillan Cancer, Winston’s Wish and Breakthrough Breast Cancer. They pitched their ideas ‘Dragon’s Den style’, the analysts chose the teams they wanted to join and we got underway. 

The event was fuelled by fresh coffee and Percy Pigs and gradually things started to take shape. Then, all of a sudden in the early afternoon, it all clicked! Creativity and innovation exploded, ambition went through the roof. The combined analyst/charity teams started tearing through ideas and the pace of work became frantic. By 9 PM, when we finished for the day, we had to throw people out as they wanted to continue working. The next morning the pace only got faster after an early start and by midday we were wrapping up ready to present back. 

data dive 2

As we stood back and looked at what we’d achieved over 36 hours, it was with a sense of awe. Our achievements included building a donor database for one charity, identifying a £900,000 funding opportunity for another and a predictive analytics model that would identify the support sufferers would need over coming months based on an analysis of their phone call language. 

Every analyst was buzzing and all are keen that we run the event again next year. As a way of returning value to the community, it was exceptionally rewarding and charity feedback  “about the ‘greater than any cheque’ benefits they received” was exceptional. We’d done something unique and now we can’t wait to do it again. 

So what is a datadive? Or a hackathon? Why it’s the simply the most rewarding event you should sign up for next year.

In the new year we will be finding out from our charity partners on how the data dive has helped them to  understand their data better, how they are using it and what value it has unlocked for them. To make sure you don't miss this follow up blog, click here to receive our blog alerts.