What does it look like when big data is used to help crack some the world’s most pressing social issues? With the desire to make the world a better place and use analytical reasoning to solve the world’s social problems, the founders of Tableau Software started the Tableau Foundation in 2012, just before the company went public in 2013. The Foundation is made up of Tableau employees, partners and customers who volunteer their time, skills and resources to a number of causes. So far the Foundation has tackled issues ranging from tracking the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Kenya to closing achievement gaps for low income and students of color in high schools.
In May 2014, Neal Myrick, who has worked as a Program Management Director at Tableau Software since October 2012, was appointed as Corporate Social Responsibility Director. His new mission is to build and grow the efforts of the Tableau Foundation.
We interviewed Myrick to discuss his year-and-a-half journey with Tableau Foundation, including the Foundation’s current projects, the challenges of his role, and the organization’s goals for the next five years.
What has been the most remarkable project the Tableau Foundation has worked on this past year and a half?
A project in Guinea, West Africa, focused on the Ebola crisis. We partnered with Dimagi, an organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts that built an application for phones to collect mobile health data. Our project was to use cellphones and local community health workers to track people who have come in contact with somebody who has been diagnosed with Ebola. Previously it had been done with paper and pencil, so by doing it with smartphones we were able to provide real-time reports. Dimagi was responsible for the data collection and Tableau provided software and volunteers to help them build the visualizations.
How long did you work on this project?
This project started in September 2014 and is still going on. We just pledged more than $900,000 in software services and training to expand that project from Guinea to Sierra Leone and Liberia as well.
One of the things that made it really successful was the Zen Masters, the lead users of Tableau. They got involved along with Slalom Consulting and provided a lot of pro-bono help to Dimagi to build the visualization, so between the time that Dimagi started the project, there were just 10 weeks before they were operating on the ground in Guinea.
It seems like you work with a lot of partners. What has that experience been like?
That is actually one of the most interesting and exciting things about our Foundation. Every grant that we have given has involved Tableau customers, Tableau business partners and Tableau employees as volunteers. So we have a very nice collaborative environment around the grants that we have given. [It] helps nonprofits to take advantage of Tableau and get value out of it as quickly as possible.
Do you help only non-profits based in the U.S., or do you provide help to nonprofits based outside of the country?
We are global, so we rolled out two programs that are global. One is called Tableau for Non-profits, and it is in partnership with TechSoup Global, which is an organization that has been facilitating the donations of software and technology to nonprofits for a long time.
Right now nonprofits around the world can get access to Tableau desktop professional licenses through TechSoup. It has been rolled out in the U.S., U.K., and some other countries, and we continue to add more countries. The goal is to be fully global by the end of the year. So Tableau for Non-profits is the way we are giving nonprofits access to Tableau software.
Then we launched the Tableau Service Corps, which is a group of Tableau enthusiasts who volunteer to help nonprofits use Tableau. And we launched them simultaneously on purpose because not only did we want to provide our software in an accessible way to nonprofits, we also wanted to provide them with the expertise needed to actually get value out of it.
Does it mean everyone can join the Foundation as a volunteer?
Right now we have Tableau employees testing the Services Corps out. But in our customer conference we actually started signing up customers and partners. I don’t have a specific number yet in terms of how many signed up to join the Tableau Service Corps, but it was a few hundred customers that put their name on the list to be considered to join Tableau Service Corps. Our goal is that over the next year or two, we will add volunteers to the Tableau Service Corps so we can fill a very nice global ecosystem of nonprofits using data effectively to address questions.
How do you think data can help to solve the world’s problems?
We encourage nonprofit organizations to use data as sort of the daily or weekly part of their decision-making process. Historically, in the nonprofit sector, data has been used to look backwards and do historical reporting. But in terms of the success of the nonprofits, the right use of data is actually gathering data in real time, or as near real time as make sense, for their particular work. Then visualizing that data in tools like Tableau in order to make more informed decisions about how they move their programs forward. Some are using data really effectively to tell stories for advocacy.
There is a group out of Montana called Headwater Economics, and they have been using Tableau to look at land use and natural-resources use in the U.S. Then they tell stories about the economic impact on communities.
For those projects, do you have partnerships with other organizations that help nonprofits in the process of data collection?
In the case of the Ebola crisis, we partnered with Dimagi to provide data collection tools. Right now we are talking with some other organizations that have data collection capabilities about possible partnerships.
For instance, I can tell you about a new campaign we are launching called Visualize No Malaria. It is in partnership with PATH, a highly regarded global health organization here in Seattle. We made a five-year $500,000 financial commitment as well as software and support. Part of what they are doing on the ground in Zambia, which is where the project is starting, is using data collection tools to collect information about malaria. Then that data is put into Tableau visualizations so they can actually see what parts of Zambia have a high burden of disease and what parts have a lower burden of disease. Then they can allocate resources accordingly. So in low-burden disease areas, they can send community health workers to do certain things and in high burden of disease area they can send a larger intervention to help address the problem in a more aggressive way.
How do you decide which projects to support?
Actually from 2014 until the end of this year, the process has been invite only. When we first started the Foundation, we interviewed other foundations as well as nonprofits. We asked them questions about where they saw Tableau Foundation fitting into the ecosystem since all of the things we can provide are our product, our people and our financial resources. We asked a lot of different people to prioritize those for us in terms of where do they think we can have the most effective impact in the nonprofit sector. Software was number one, people was number two and financial support was third in terms of priorities.
We also learned in talking to all these groups that nonprofits know they need to use data more effectively. Many of them don’t know what it looks like in their sector, so we have been picking projects in different sectors that can stand out and show other organization what is possible with data. Those projects were chosen specifically because the organizations we partnered with had a vision for how they could use data to really transform how they were addressing whatever problem they were addressing. We found their vision was really clear and partnering with them could show other organizations what it looks like when you are using data effectively.
What is the process going to be like in the future?
Tableau is an employee-driven company — we have employees involved in every aspect. In 2016, we are going to do a survey of employees by using the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a framework. We are going to ask employees to pick their top four areas of interest for 2016 and we will use that to set our investment priorities. Then, we will form teams of employees which will basically be grant evaluation teams. They will do research and find the organizations that are doing very interesting work and then we will have a process of identifying organizations that are good potential candidates to partner with Tableau.
Are there any projects you would like to work on in the future?
There is one we are talking about right now. We partnered with an organization called NetHope. They help organizations to use technology effectively in humanitarian work. NetHope also is the first responder for disasters, so we partnered with them during the Ebola crisis. We also helped them in Nepal for the earthquake and they are now using Tableau for the response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
One thing we learned by partnering with this organization is that in a crisis, finding data, getting that prepared, and turning it into visualizations that can be used on the ground to facilitate more strategic investment of resources takes a lot of time. So we are talking to them about a disaster preparedness project where we collect data and maps and other information ahead of time, so when a disaster strikes we can more rapidly help prepare visualizations and then help the first responders more strategically respond.
What is your dream as Tableau CSR Director?
My dream is that we have the Tableau employees find ways to be deeply engaged in their communities and that we are able to find ways to invest our assets with nonprofit organizations that really move the bar on some of the world’s most important issues. The malaria campaign is the first thing. We believe malaria can be eradicated, and one other reason that we made such a large commitment over five years is that we are hoping to encourage other private sector organizations to join us in that campaign. All the clinical and methodological progress is being made by global health organizations, and now we can make a strategic investment to eradicate malaria by being able to visualize data and respond in the right way at the right time. I hope in the next five years we actually see real substantial progress on solving the world’s problems.