Real-time data visualizations powered by Tableau are impacting social change in the U.S. and around the world.

46 million people face hunger in the U.S. today — including nearly 13 million children and more than five million seniors. And too many Americans are one job loss or medical crisis away from food insecurity.

Feeding America, the largest nonprofit in the U.S. focused on hunger, has established a network of 200 food banks that’s working to serve three to four billion meals a year to 49 million people in America.

“The problem is that they need to be able to serve eight billion meals,” says Neal Myrick, director of social impact at Tableau and head of the Tableau Foundation. “So there’s a tremendous meal gap, between what they’re able to serve and what the need is.”

And to do that, Myrick says, real-time data is increasingly essential. “It’s being used more and more to put actionable information in the hands of decision-makers,” he explains.

Historically, he says, non-profits have collected data over long stretches of time and evaluated it in traditional backward-looking measurement and evaluation exercises.

“The shift that we’re seeing now is that the data is actually being collected in near real time and being used to make decisions and assess program success on a more active and frequent basis,” Myrick says. “At Feeding America, they’re using data to get more food into their supply chain.”

The data they pull in from third-party vendors and local grocery stores gives food bank staff insight into donation capacities. “It helps give them a basic understanding of how much the grocery store procures and then how much they sell,” says Myrick. “And they can calculate what that grocery store’s potential donation could be.”

For example, they can see that the local Walmart is donating five thousand pounds of food, but the math shows they have the capacity to donate ten thousand. “And what that allows the local food bank manager to do is go have a conversation with that Walmart,” Myrick says. “They brainstorm ideas for how they can get from donating five thousand pounds to donating ten thousand pounds, and get more food into the supply chain for Feeding America to distribute.”

Real-time data, transformed into visualizations, are also essential for helping non-profits who are always operating on razor-thin margins, Myrick says. All 200 food banks collect data on twelve specific operating metrics; pooled and visualized, Feeding America has an essential tool at their fingertips.

“I can compare myself with other rural food banks around the country on these twelve metrics and I can see where I’m underperforming, I can see where I’m overperforming,” Myrick says. “And what we’re hearing is that having that visibility is encouraging collaboration among the food banks. If I see somebody able to deliver a meal for 25 cents, that gives me an immediate thing to put into my road map and set an objective. And I can call the food bank that’s achieving the 25 and find out what they’re doing to achieve that.”

The combination of near-live data and visualization is what powers the ability to stay on top of potential savings and effective strategies.

“Imagine having to look through a set of Excel spreadsheets and having to eyeball numbers,” Myrick says. “It’s hard to really have perspective unless you can see yourself in the context of other organizations that are like you. The visualization gives you the ability to instantly see what you should be focused on, and also drill in and get more information.”

In the non profit world, where organizations lack the kinds of resources that the business world has, and more than likely don’t have data scientists on hand, visualization is critical for effectiveness and efficiency.

Tableau is bringing together its entire community to help nonprofits overcome the resource gap, Myrick says. “Skills and capacity are definitely an obstacle,” he says. “That’s why we invest our entire ecosystem — our employees, our business partners, and our customers all get invited to partner with us to build skills and capacity in the nonprofit sector. We actually teach the nonprofits and build their capacity to use data.”

Tableau is also busy breaking down barriers in the nonprofit sector that often slow down or obstruct work on the ground, particularly how data is collected and where it’s delivered.

“We’re seeing a shift now. When the data is collected in real time, it can be used more operationally by the nonprofits to make better and smarter decisions on an ongoing basis,” Myrick says. “What we’re finding is we’re enabling people to use real-time data to make better decisions; they actually need to be able to pivot and change directions when the data are showing that what they thought was going to work isn’t working as well as something else.”

And in the case of some nonprofits Tableau is working with, like the World Food Programme which is meeting the needs of food-insecure people in conflict and crisis areas struggling to meet their basic needs,  Tableau is also working to deliver food price information back down to local program managers. These on-the-ground aid workers have never before had access to this type of real-time information which is now helping them make informed decisions on the best way to help.

“The community is actually benefiting from the data collection exercise,” Myrick says, “and we’re super excited about that.”

It’s the future of real-time data for nonprofits, Myrick says. “Data used to be collected to be used by funders, by researchers, and by experts,” he explains. “And especially in low-income and underserved communities in developing countries, the data was really kind of extracted from the community for the benefit of the wealthy.”

And those communities oftentimes weren’t able to benefit from the data in return.

“What I’m really excited about is we are seeing a shift,” says Myrick. “Part of the responsible use of data is to deliver value back to the community so the community can benefit from the data, not just the funders or the governments or whoever is requiring the data to be collected.”

Tableau’s work is keeping that shift in motion. “There are lots of tools out there like Tableau and others that are easy enough to use now where community members can actually not only just get big data sets, but get data delivered in a visual way,” he says. “They can actually make use of it without having to go through weeks and weeks of schooling to figure it out.”

“Putting more information and power into the hands of the community is something that we’re super excited about,” he adds. And it’s already changing the world.

Beyond nonprofit: Learn more about real-time data in our recent VB Live event. Join us to understand how to turn a raw data stream into an ocean of actionable insight.

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