Small Data with Impact


Small Data is a series which records the accompaniment processes with diverse organizations who use data to transform the life of their target objective population, regardless of the size of their database, with the focus centered in the analysis potential of the data, towards the transformation in the life of said population in concrete and strategic aspects, eg., the impact in the use of data.

First delivery:  

Video link:

Text: Sergio Araiza

Image & video: Gibrán Mena

Translation: Blanca Vargas

Small Data came to life with an idea born nearly two years ago, when our team at SocialTIC questioned: how can an organization with no solid digital resources create and use data to improve their actions? In order to tell this story, one must know about El Caracol, an organization in Mexico City who has been working for over ten years with homeless population. Their goal is to guarantee rights and conditions for these people and insure access to public services provided by the State is not denied. The job and work they perform had all the potential for growth and to generate more impact with the use of data.  

In October of 2014 we began an accompaniment with El Caracol. The main objective was to transform an organization through the use of data to improve their actions and incidence on behalf of the homeless population they work for. Some of the secondary objectives were:

  • Systematize and y digitize existing information, storing them in different formats
  • Establish a process to consolidate information according with the organization’s work areas
  • Refine the process to improve the information flow and its analysis for decision making

The Team

Among promoters of data use, it has become very common to talk about the data scientists, people capable of analyzing all types of data regardless of the magnitude. But in our accompaniment project we always ask ourselves, what happens with those who have neither resources nor experience to use big data that is so much talked about?

Here is where the value of a fierce and motivated team enters the game for those small organizations stepping into the world of data. The team in El Caracol does not have data scientists or engineers, the profiles are of educators, designers and social workers. These people cover the dynamics of the organization on a daily basis.

Luis Enrique Hernández director of the organization, besides directing and facilitating all the resources for its activities, also had an active participation in the sessions with comments and at times, questionings and critics regarding existing processes in search of their improvement for the benefit of creating a better organization.

Guided by Enrique, we also met Gerardo Rodríguez and Ángel Ramírez.  Their contribution with information from their areas and sensibility regarding homeless people, helped to better understand the day to day proceedings, characteristics and needs of the organization.

The First contact

We rapidly understood that they would be the ones setting the time and range for each phase.  In the end this would prove to be one of the most important lessons throughout the process; to listen before acting.

It is not a surprise to know that in the technical world, times and phases are more important than causes and people. We forget that data is just data, but underneath, it tells us about people and the conditions they live in. Based on this premise, in this accompaniment the data never represented just numbers, the data became people we could help if the job was well done.

Here are some reflections gathered from this first contact among both teams:

  • The data is not more important than people
      • How often the priority is to gather more and more data, forgetting about the people it represents?  Each indicator should be used with a clear purpose and must support a phase, being, for a process or for an action.
  • Always have total respect for the organization and its members
      • Let’s not put unnecessary loads on those who don’t need them. Those of us with technical skills, sometimes tend to disqualify people who are inexperienced in this field.  Each organization is different just like the persons working there, Learning to listen and exchange points of view contributes to enhance any practice and make sense of every phase.
  • All change is possible
    • To establish phases at the beginning of all project, allows to understand its magnitude and scope, but it’s also valid to leave some things open.  Being able to adapt to the context and have time, is a virtue all data related projects can and should have.  Nothing is written on solid rock and therefore, it can be changed along the way for the good of all involved.

The data

Almost all the organizations have information, but few have digital data. The first thing the team of El Caracol gave us were files and more files, filled with documents that had not been touched, probably in months or even years, but held valuable information.

The mission then, was to understand that information, give it structure and later make sense of it within a database which would be useful for various purposes. El Caracol, year after year, performs diverse census on different issues of relevance for homeless people, in order to detect variations. Health in the street, maternity, violence and mortality in the street are among other topics they cover.

These census were recorded on paper by a group of visitors from different parts of the city interviewing homeless communities. Each interviewer carried the material with them, and it was stored in files upon their return to the office, available for everyone in the organization.

This idea is useful to collect information, but not in the train of thought for the use of data. For this reason, one of the greater challenges in this accompaniment was, to understand the workflow of each area, their interest, need and how it could be efficiently implemented for a daily use by all persons involved.

First and most important was to redesign the workflow, where the first major change was to move from a paper model to a digital model. We designed several templates for the capture of data which allowed us to structure and unify the information into documents readily available to all interested parties. Some mobile equipment was acquired, thus, making it possible that the capture of information be done in real time and with less errors. Now each interview is conducted in an average time of 7 to 11 minutes, providing more efficiency and better information quality.

A taxonomic model was also designed to put the information in order, in such a way, so that each person interviewed or that received any type of support from the organization has an ID which allows connection to their data in the various databases which El Caracol has. By identifying each beneficiary, the services rendered by the organization be more agile and integrated.

These changes derived from sessions of design and technological tests and processes proven in real environments and situations, where errors or aspects for betterment were detected, on one hand, to avoid generating a larger work load to the team, and also, so they could be in line with the population they wanted to assist. Among the results at this stage some of the following were found:

  • Knowledge of who you work with and for
      • None of this transformation of data process would have been possible without a unified collaboration with El Caracol. The population that El Caracol cares for has unique dynamics. Understanding the way they relate and communicate made us realize the need  for more flexibility in all types of questions and actions, letting us obtain the most information at the end of each census, without intrusion or upsetting  their activities.
  • Technology is the last we should talk about
    • It is difficult for small organizations with limited resources to enter the technological world, because they are faced with an economic barrier. At this stage we try to maximize existing resources and attempt the use of free technology, even if they are not ideal for the task proposed.
    • Technology is for service, not to be the objective of a project. The creative use of each tool, eases the learning curve in an organization lacking experience on this matter. Through the various stages, we many times ask ourselves what tool can we use? Which can adapt better for the need? What long term limitations do we find?

The Result

Talking about 2 years of work with El Caracol may sound like a long time, but we had good chats sharing food with the team, plus all that we learned about people.  For both teams the greatest objective was to adequately, make visible the problematic and complex dynamics homeless people live and survive every day.

The end result after working with El Caracol, translates into a model providing a more efficient retrieval of data which guarantees availability and quality for the diverse areas using the information. Evidence of the model implemented reflects in the organization’s internal processes, where decision making is based on the indicators gathered. This allows them to create an impact at forums and public spaces by documenting their proposals with relevant data.

At present, among forums where these new indicators have been presented, Fundacion del Centro Historico stands out for their use of this data to enhance their understanding of the dynamics of the homeless population in their area and therefore, develop specific programs for them.

In addition, indicators regarding infancy and maternity in homeless population is being shared with groups working in the development and implementation of public policies, allowing them to have clear reference on this issue.

Finally, each data speaks of a person and that data is used to change their reality.  Looking towards the future, El Caracol and SocialTIC plan to collaborate with other groups of organizations, who can use or replicate similar models for a more efficient retrieval of data to use in their daily actions.

We have nothing left but to thank each and everyone involved in this project.

Angel, Jerry, Enrique y Caracoles. Thank you for your good disposition in each phase we tackled, the morning food and the laughs we shared.  Grateful for the capacity to experiment and take risks during the time where nothing was sure except our conviction of success.

SocialTIC team, Indira, Mariel, Phi, Juan Manuel, Haydeé, Sandra, Gibran, Carla, Andrea. All and each one of you who are committed day in and day out to social causes and to technological research as a way to contribute.  Thanks for everything.


Translation: Blanca Vargas