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Can Software and Social Impact Learn to Speak the Same Language? 

Many Silicon Valley companies try to help social-impact organizations by donating products or technical assistance.

But techie types and mission-driven groups have often had trouble connecting. Some of the gaps emerged at this week’s Data on Purpose/Do Good Data conference at Stanford University.

[blockquote author=”” pull=”pullleft”]Tableau now instructs employees who volunteer to help nonprofits to ‘shut your mouth and listen.'[/blockquote]

Representatives of LinkedIn, Splunk and Tableau Software touted their data-crunching abilities and efforts to help. For tech companies, such programs offer a way to burnish their image with employees and the public, and occasionally serve as a testbed for new uses of their software.

Splunk, a big-data software provider, worked with other tech companies on NetHope, which has brought internet connectivity to camps for Syrian refugees, helping migrants stay in touch with friends, relatives and aid organizations.

Tableau has worked with Feeding America, a national network of food banks. Stephanie Zidek, a senior analytics manager at Feeding America, said the group used Tableau’s software to create a dashboard that allows food banks to compare themselves against peers. She said the comparison tool is not intended to punish poor performers, but to help them learn from better-performing groups.

Complex Problems

The feel-good narrative about such collaborations, however, came in for some knocks at the two-day conference, which was sponsored by the Stanford Social Innovation Review and the university’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Adene Sacks, of the James Irvine Foundation’s New Leadership Network, said she had conceived a “Saturday Night Live” skit about technologists showing up to help community activists, where the techies swoop in talking their own language and propose a solution before understanding the problem.

After the session, Sacks said technologists often don’t appreciate that nonprofits are trying to address complex and interwoven social problems with scarce resources. Staffers need time to learn how, or if, a high-tech tool may help.

Steve Schwartz, a marketing manager at Tableau, which makes data-analysis and -visualization software, copped to the charge. “An engineer sees a problem and tries to solve it,” he said. Tableau now instructs employees who volunteer to help nonprofits to “shut your mouth and listen.”

Sravya Tirukkovalur, who worked with nonprofit groups while an engineer at big-data software maker Cloudera, said only a small fraction of social-impact engagements solve a nonprofit’s problems. She asked panelists whether they or their companies measure the impact of such programs.

Schwartz said Tableau generally does not look to quantify its impact, in part because it is usually just one of many players helping a nonprofit confront a problem. It would be misleading, he said, for Tableau to claim it had helped bring clean drinking water to 50,000 people by donating a software program.

“Technology is not the answer,” echoed Corey Marshall, director of Splunk4Good, the software company’s social-impact arm. “Technology is an enabler.”

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