Reflecting on a recent podcast, I began wondering whether it’s possible to do good without being good. This came after a podcast I was listening to referenced the popular Greek proverb:
Society grows great when people plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
I get it, I’ve sat in the proverbial shade of the proverbial trees planted by society before me, so now it’s my time to get planting, even though I’ll never get to see those trees grow. I know, the trees and the shade here are proverbial, it’s a metaphor. But sometimes life is literal; I found this out the hard way during a recent team away day, where I discovered that planting non-proverbial trees (or trees, as some people call them) is a skill I’m not good at. I’m awful at it; no one will sit in the shade of a tree I’ve planted because I’m terrible at gardening.
Like many companies, mine offers a great scheme that allows you to ringfence X days each year for outreach / social-good work. The reality for many companies is that these days don’t always get used: people either don’t know they have this perk, don’t make time to use them, or can’t find the right project to work on (more on this later). During this recent team away day, we were sent to a local park in London to help with its renovation. It was a fantastic project and initiative. We’ve since seen the fruits of our ‘labour’ (amongst hundreds of hours from other volunteers), as the park re-launched last month with new areas for plants to grow and children to play. Seeing the park’s brilliant transformation was great, but it didn’t feel fair to feel any responsibility for its success, after being almost useless throughout our day there.
My personal contribution involved being part of the team allocated to hole digging and levelling (a technique which I still have no idea of its definition or use). I’m not someone who likes to get their hands literally dirty, nor am I someone with any practical/useful DIY skills (to sum this up, I spend most my spare time cycling my bike, yet I still don’t know how to fix anything on it). It became apparent very quickly that I was rubbish at gardening. Whilst my colleagues took brief interludes from digging to wipe sweat from their brows, I took brief interludes from being resident garden DJ to make them cups of tea. How useful was my contribution? Well, it was better than nothing, but only marginally.
So, can you do good without being good?
Probably, but the volume or level of achievement might not be great. Again, something is always better than nothing, but even though I was proud to have taken part in this day and initiative, I felt like I might’ve been able to offer more if it were doing something closer to my skillset. Whilst there are still no programmes looking for people to cycle around cafes at weekends, I set out to see what social-good work I could find in the analytics space.
Obviously, the point here isn’t that proverbs shouldn’t be taken literally, it’s that the best way to help is to do something you’re actually good at.
Back in early summer, an old friend phoned me to tell me about the 6-month sabbatical he’d just finished in Africa (mostly Rwanda), where he’d worked on really interesting projects with some great NGOs. He’s in the process of setting a not-for-profit up himself, MPSS, who will provide consultancy to NGOs and start-ups in Africa. “The NGOs I met are all completely different, from power grids to waste disposal, but they all share similar challenges,” he told me, “there are common challenges between them all, primarily financial planning, organisation structuring, or analytics.” My interest perked up; I might be able to help. Less so ‘financial planning’ projects – my fiancée would be first to tell you, I’m about as good at this as I am at planting trees (that money still isn’t growing on them…) – but analytics is my day job, and one I enjoy, so I wanted to see how I could help there.
Kiran introduced me to MeshPower, an organisation he’d been working with based in Rwanda that provide power to areas of Rwanda not on the National Grid. Right now, only 51% of households in Rwanda have electricity: this is made up of homes on the National Grid or households with access via ‘off-grid systems.’ The latter is where MeshPower work: they use solar panels to generate electricity, and by connecting these ‘base stations’ to businesses and homes, they can provide power where it wasn’t before. MeshPower are looking to install more panels to provide more homes and businesses with electricity.
MeshPower are hoping to introduce around 70 new panels in their next ‘wave’ of installations across Rwanda. Ultimately, they want to understand “where are the best places to put these panels?” against a set of constraints. MeshPower have already sourced lots of great data to help understand the problem, including:
and even more data to help us optimise the results against the constraints, including:
Right now, we have a workflow and analytic app that outputs results and reports based on weightings of some of the constraints listed above input by the user, scoring and ranking the best N places to put grids in the next wave.
I’m not going to go into any technical detail on how we have started to help MeshPower answer that question, but we are hoping to write future blogs on this evolving process (this isn’t a finished project!). There will also be a talk at INSPIRE Europe on this work from Kiran (MPSS) and me, for anyone planning to be in London on 17 October.
Previously, I said that it felt almost inefficient to help on projects so far out of my skillset and comfort zone; this work gave me an opportunity to use tools and logic I enjoy, in a setting that can be done ‘for good.’ Kiran was the piece between businesses and NGOs, pairing up consultants (in this case) with NGOs that could benefit from their expertise. There are lots of reasons to get involved with this kind of thing:
Might you want to get involved in this or another project?
Right now, I’m the only analytics resource that MPSS has, and we’d love to have other analytics minded people involved. Maybe you’re someone who’s great with spatial tools, or perhaps you’re looking for a reason to start using new tools in unique problem settings?
MPSS aren’t the only organisation looking to pair people up with other organisations. Alteryx for Good has some great initiatives they need people. You can check out some of their work here, and if you want to get involved with projects for AFG then visit the Alteryx for Good Co-Lab.
Please be in touch if you’re interested to hear more about how you could get involved – we’d love to have more people working on these projects, even if it’s just a remote day here and there!
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