The United Nations Refugee Agency Is Hosting a Hackathon to Help Understand Donor Data

UNHCR is partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Several groups are hoping a hackathon will soon help raise money for refugees in Syria and elsewhere. Getty Images
Headshot of Marty Swant

The United Nations Refugee Agency is hoping to hack the potential of big data to unlock new ways of funding its humanitarian efforts around the world.

This weekend, a unit of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is hosting a hackathon to let developers and designers collaborate to better understand UNHCR’s donor base and who might be interested in donating in the future.

Hive—an initiative of UNHCR—is partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to see what kind of ideas Seattle’s hacker community might “unravel” while prototyping new ways of engagement. (The event, held at the Gates Foundation office, is organized by DataKind, an organization that promotes the use of data to solve global problems.)

“I think it’s an incredible convergence of many different actors that can make significant change in the world,” said Rita Ko, director of data strategy and analytics at Hive.

The team will look at both anonymized donor data to better understand the donor profiles and the overall donation pipeline. According to Ko, the 125-person group of data scientists, analysts and coders will also review satellite imagery of refugee camp maps to get a better feel for how they’re designed and how they’ve grown. She said that while machine learning, data and algorithms are often used in the private sector, it’s rarer for nonprofits to use the same techniques.

Along with coming up with new ways of better understanding UNHCR’s donor DNA, Ko said the organization also hopes to use the event for  education and awareness about the crisis. According to the United Nations, more than 65 million people are globally displaced—that’s nearly twice the population of Canada.

“It’s just kind of humanizing the crisis a bit,” Ko said. “In the United States and North America, we are not exposed on a daily basis to refugees, unlike Europe where you could be living in Germany and you’ll very much meet a refugee in your day-to-day.”

Ko said that could mean figuring out how to better connect the Latino population in the U.S. with refugee-related causes in Mexico and Guatemala, or connecting millennials who have more income from which to donate as they progress in their careers.

“Like every organization, there are people that just naturally have an inclination to support a cause—a certain mission over another,” she said.

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.