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Crystal Chong and Gabriel Shen are the Project Leaders for Data for Good, a Student-Led Volunteering Project that help charities with data analysis to produce better results in their fields. They came into the office (before the lockdown!) to talk to us about why they started the project, and the impact it’s had on their lives as UCL students.

Can you tell us what your project is?

Crystal: #Data for Good seeks to leverage data analytics to scale social impact. Our core focus lies in our data consulting arm, where we reach out to charities to understand their concerns and priorities, such as optimising scarce resources or extracting actionable intelligence from data. We then tailor a data consulting project specifically for the charity, led by one of our student volunteer teams.

Gabriel: In the past 6 months, we’ve spearheaded 3 data consulting projects for 2 charity partners with a team of over 30 student volunteers and alumni mentors. Some of the projects include: Sentiment Analysis using Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Analysing Digital User Journeys for Website Redesign.

Why did you want to start this project?

Crystal: I come from the social sector and previously interned for three summers at a community development organisation, People’s Association. I’m also currently studying a Masters’ degree in Business Analytics. Hence, my prior experiences and interests naturally led me to explore the role of data science in community development. I decided that it would be easier to execute my entrepreneurial vision with a technical co-founder, so I roped in one of my good friends, Gabriel, in this venture.

Gabriel: In my case, I was initially more interested in the technical aspect due to my experience in data science and machine learning. While completing a machine learning internship, I realised the potential impact that data could have in the third sector, so when Crystal asked if I wanted to co-found the project, I leapt at the opportunity.

What was it like setting up the project, recruiting volunteers and getting charity partners involved?

Gabriel: It’s been pretty hectic! We co-founded the project in October last year, with the aim of starting our data science collaborations in January. Hence, we had to intensively network with charities to secure their interest, and then immediately start recruiting student volunteers. We then organised a major recruiting campaign in January, so that we could launch our 10 week projects and wrap up by the end of Term 2. Overall, I’d say we’ve been very busy but the work has been very rewarding, and it’s amazing that we’ve actually been able to achieve measurable results with our charity partners within 5 months.

Crystal, you’re from a non-profit background; have you ever led anything like this before?

Crystal: Not really. Although I have spearheaded existing community volunteering projects such as house painting for elderly residents in the past, this is the first time I’ve started an entirely new project from scratch. One of the challenges of founding a new initiative is establishing legitimacy, hence I really pushed the team to network and pitch to establish credibility, sustain interest and ultimately, secure a critical mass of talent, support and resources. No doubt, this has also been one of the steepest learning curves I’ve experienced, but also one of my best volunteering experiences to date.

What’s the progress been like with the charities?

Gabriel: We’ve actually had decently strong support from the charities; we meet with them regularly to discuss our progress and ensure that our projects are going in the right direction. The charities are not always certain of what outcomes they’d like to achieve, but our weekly analysis and proactive updates enable them to see what they can take forward. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a challenge, but it does call for us to be on our toes.

What has leading this project, and also being volunteers for it, done for your experience at UCL?

Crystal: I think it’s been very fulfilling socially because you get to meet people who are very committed to volunteering, such as our supervisor Cynthia and all our volunteers. It has also reaffirmed my commitment to serving in the social sector and strengthened my interest in data science as a future career path.

Gabriel: It’s definitely something that has given me the opportunity to interact with people outside my usual social sphere. I usually only see the other engineering students, but people from all across UCL wanted to get involved, so it’s definitely allowed me to improve my communication and management skills. I feel like I’ve also gained leadership experience in managing data science teams, and developed stronger instincts in spotting, recruiting and developing technical talent.

Where would you like to see this project go from here?

Crystal: We definitely want to leave a legacy of sorts. In preparation for handover, we’ve recruited our core leadership team for the next academic year, expanded the size of the project team and nudged our charity partners to pursue more collaborations next year. We’ve also put more thought into how we can strategically leverage our resources and volunteers, and how we can expand our work beyond data consulting as well. We’d love to see our future project leaders take this forward and can’t wait to see what #Data For Good will be working on next year!

Crystal and Gabriel’s story is a great example of using your knowledge and experience to help meet a need in the community - if you want to emulate their success, why not start your own project? And if you like the sound of what Data for Good does, they are currently recruiting for volunteers to do work remotely, so you can help charities from the comfort of your own home.