5 Things About My Audience: Perry Hewitt - data.org

What we know and don’t know about our audience’s attention

Hello hello!

Before we jump into today’s interview we have news of an event.

We're testing a new half-day workshop on understanding audiences and content formats in partnership with our good friend The Content Technologist. The workshop will be in New York on Tuesday 26th September. It will cover understanding and measuring audience attention, developing content formats, getting your workflow right, and measuring success. Join us.

OK. I must say I’m really enjoying the responses we’re getting as part of this series - each interviewee is so different from the next but they all have useful things to say. Put them all together and you’re looking at a proper audience strategy!

So who’s joining the esteemed company of Matt Carlstrom from Quanta Magazine, John Stack from the Science Museum Group, Riham Mustafa from the International Finance Corporation, Abbie Morris from Compare Ethics and Ben Young, founder and CEO at Nudge this week? Read on to find out more about Perry Hewitt and data.org.

This is 5 Things About My Audience, a series where we interview people who are trying to reach different kinds of audiences, to understand how they approach audience engagement.

Over to Perry Hewitt:

I work as Chief Marketing and Product Officer for data.org, which is a platform for partnerships to build the field of data for social impact. I come to this work from a variety of experiences, from the educational world as the Chief Digital Officer at Harvard, from the private sector having worked in both agencies like Razorfish and private sector startups and even large companies like IBM -- a lot of cross-sector experience. My role at data.org focuses on the question of: how do you build a new field, activating funding and expertise for social impact through the lens of technology?

In my career, I've been so lucky because it has been very focused on spreading the smartest ideas from some of the smartest people around the world using technology. So, whether that was at IBM with some of our knowledge products, or at Harvard with the faculty, or even working with Bloomberg Philanthropies for a couple of years before I joined data.org, it was really how do you think about data and technology and new mechanisms for reaching audiences? And that's been my bread and butter for a couple of decades.

1. Who is your audience? Tell us a few things you know about them. 

We know that our audience are highly committed people working to increase the use of data to improve the lives of people around the world. High-level, that's it. 

More specifically, we reach funders who are looking to support innovative applications of data and AI, particularly those with the potential for systemic social impact. Funders are moving beyond pilotitis and one-offs, and thinking ‘how do we shift the system’? Now that our global problems are more interconnected, that feels more urgent than ever. Our audience is social impact organisations around the world who are training people to use data to tackle challenges across health and climate, like our India Data Capacity Accelerator launch, and also applying technology to solve problems at the community level. 

So, localism is core to what we do, and social impact organisations who are working in-country to solve these problems are a critical audience for us.

Another audience is data science practitioners who are interested in putting their skills to use training people and standing up programmes, and these are people I think who are searching for meaning increasingly in their work. 

And of course academic and research institutions who are developing and evaluating approaches through evidence-based research, and that includes our partnership with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Javeriana University, and University of the Andes (Colombia) on the Epiverse program, with the Harvard Data Science Initiative on an upcoming Accelerate Conference, and also in India, our partnership with BITS Pilani, IIIT-Delhi and Ashoka University. These universities provide the evidence to validate the approaches that we can then work with social impact organisations to roll out more broadly.

2. What research or tools do you have that back up your understanding of them?

Well, we've written two research reports. First, in 2022 we wrote a report called Workforce Wanted, which was about how we get to one million purpose-driven data practitioners, which is the data.org commitment. In that report we did research with Dalberg to help us understand the potential addressable market: how many people are in that world or should be in that world doing this important work? And they found potential for 3.5 million data-for-social-impact practitioners across developing countries alone. So, that's one of the ways - we produce large reports, and see what resonates.

So, Workforce Wanted really focused on how we are going to build these data-for-social impact practitioners: how do we get there? And we identified four existing ways. 

You get new talent with people right out of school. 

You can have existing talent, people who have been working in the social impact sector and understand the nuances but need to be skilled up on data and AI. 

You can have transitional talent, which are people, some of the data science practitioners we interact with, who may have worked for Amazon and Netflix and had wonderful and rewarding careers, but are just looking to do something a little bit different. 

And finally, leadership, how do we develop at the leadership level? And that's both executive directors and boards. 

Last year, we did a report called Accelerate, which we launched at Davos in 2023, and that involved a survey and in-person interviews with data-for-social-impact actors talking about what it looks like to build this field, how we think about the systemic change we have to enact. We do a lot of outreach through the Capacity Accelerator Network, including impact stories on the site, and a little bit non-traditionally, these are not just organisations we funded or worked with. These are people who are just doing great work, because if you think about data.org, we're trying to build up capacity, we're trying to build digital public goods, but we're also trying to build use cases. What are the stories you can look to?

So, if you're looking to solve gender-based violence in Nigeria, there may be people using technology in Latin America to solve the same problem with different technology or a different problem with the same technology that can expand your thinking. So, we have a very strong network of people doing this work around the world and we use those impact stories to share learning. And each time we engage to create an impact story, we find out more about what our audience is looking for.

To measure quantitatively, we use all the usual digital suspects. We understand who opens our emails and what they click on, and we build out elaborate GA4 and Looker dashboards, which was a Herculean effort to move from Google Analytics, but we're there now, to understand how people are engaging.

And certainly when we launch challenges, like the recent Generative AI Skills Challenge with Microsoft, it's really important for us to understand and survey people pre- and post- to understand what their perception of data.org is, how they would like to work with us, and then what their experience was being part of this challenge. So, those are all ways we try to get closer to our audiences. 

Sometimes I look back on the pre-digital days - I mean, I remember being at IBM in the '90s where people thought nothing of a multi-million dollar in-person qualitative research effort. I do worry a little bit that because we can reach everyone digitally, that's our default drive. I understand qualitative in-person is hugely expensive and must be used sparingly. But I do think sometimes in a world where I can't buy bird seed at the hardware store without getting a survey right after, the survey fatigue and the responses just lack context and nuance many times.

We learn so much by talking to partners, challenge participants, and those entering the data for social impact field.

3. Have you noticed any interesting behaviour changes in your audiences over the last 2 to 3 years?

I think the sense of immediacy of the problems we are trying to solve has caused a little bit of a shift in our audience: a sense of sharpened engagement. I think if content is seen as useful, people double down and they share it. If content is not seen as useful, it’s ignored. Before there was maybe a little more browsing, a little more, "This might be useful or it might be interesting." But now I feel people are more directed toward the very specific problem they're trying to solve and focused on that content: "Is this helpful to me or not?" We see more engagement when we hit the mark and less engagement when we miss the mark. There's less of a sense of, "Oh, here's a smorgasbord of interesting ideas and things data.org is working on or connected with funding opportunities about." In a world of interesting ideas competing for attention, we now see much more surgical strike content consumption.

I think people - a little like at an actual buffet - people's eyes are bigger than their stomachs. So, I think people have a sense that they would like, "Oh, that would be interesting. That might be nice. We would be interested in publishing a report on this or learning more about that." But in reality, I feel like people's content consumption is much more targeted and constrained. So, I think that's almost a risk when you go out and talk with people, because I do think we all have a tendency to believe we're going to find more hours in the day, and there are so many interesting problems to solve. 

So, I'd say those conversations, particularly in the time I’ve spent in Nigeria or in India, it’s important to have the conversation in depth to understand what the problem is that people are really invested in solving. And how we can build a platform that supports that learning, coordination, and connection.

From a funder perspective, where are they really looking to move the needle? From a social impact perspective, what are the ideas, the knowledge, the tools that would provide them with the most value? Because otherwise, you can end up serving something that's 60% good for too broad for an audience, that doesn't really deliver the goods. In terms of our content strategy, we try to listen very closely to those conversations and observe what people do as much as what they tell us they want to see, to understand funder priorities and social impact organisation needs and our academic partners' preferences.

4. What’s the one thing you would really like to know about your audience that you don’t know?

I would love a magical global view of where everyone is on the Data Science Impact (DSI) continuum. We have some proxy intel here: for example, we launched a Data Maturity Assessment tool and we've had over 1,500 completions by organisations seeking a pulse check of how they're doing. But I guess my dream would be to know this about more social impact organisations globally. A little bit like some of the giant surveys people release, where we could understand how many organisations are at level one, level two, level three in terms of their data maturity, their ability to work with the data scientists, their infrastructure needs, and their educational attainment and other capacity building needs.

One example: I do a Pathways to Impact interview series and I just interviewed this fascinating woman based in Kenya about her work, and I asked her "What's next? What's the exciting thing you see next?" And she talked a lot about ChatGPT and the audio possibilities, because she said, "Some of the people doing this work are not read/write literate. So, what are the ways we can use technology to do that?" 

So, I guess my dream would be - is there a global scan that could tell us, in countries that are hardest hit, where we need the expertise of people in-country working on these problems, what level of assistance would be useful to them? Because if you're giving cloud computer credits to people who don't have internet connectivity, that's a big miss.

5. Is there a project that you’re really jealous of, that you wished you’d done?

I mean, is anyone talking about anything but Barbie this summer?!!

Right now, from the house to the video game, to the Google Search, to the hair products, to Bumble, it is sort of phenomenal how they've cornered a market and I think gained some non-traditional audiences by doing that. It's performed better in some countries where we might've thought it wouldn't perform as well I think as a result of that, and kudos to, in a world where corporations do not take many risks, I think my biggest takeaway with that was can you imagine being the Mattel leadership team? And great to have the visionary marketing to do all that work, but to be parodied like that and to sign up for it. I think that's a kind of bravery we see very rarely. Now, I know it's bravery with a profit mode - this is not running into a burning building… And I can’t help but fantasize about budgets like that and how a fraction would transform data for the social sector.

On a more serious note, the kind of global initiative I do really admire is GivingTuesday and how they've morphed from this idea of a single day to combat the consumerism around the holiday period to how do we think about a localisable extensible movement that can be branded, adopted, engaged with by others. It’s a smart and expansive approach rather than a narrow view of locking down a brand. 

And when I think of the future of data.org, I'm quite happy to be a powered-by. India Data Capacity Accelerator powered by data.org, for example. I like to think about the ways that we can engage with leaders in-country around the world doing data for social impact work that we can catalyse and provide playbooks and resources and toolkits and connect with funders, but really have these localized solutions lead. That’s where the real power lies.

Wow. That is one of the most fruitful conversations I’ve had in a long time - thank you Perry!

If you can think of someone who might be a good interviewee for this series, drop us a line in the comments - we’d love to reach out!

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Signing off for now,