Project Profile: Data-Enabled Donations

April 20, 2020

Rent isn’t the only extreme price we pay to live in California. Natural disasters like wildfires, earthquakes, droughts, landslides, and floods are all too common, and increasingly so. Crises such as these, including the current coronavirus pandemic, rely heavily on donations to support affected communities. While cash donations are generally preferred by shelters and disaster relief agencies, donations of physical supplies are often necessary for immediate relief in times of sudden disasters.

The potential problems associated with donating cash to certain nonprofits are an entirely separate discussion. The fact is that when disasters strike, shelters are inundated with well-intentioned donations of physical goods that people may or may not need. Unfortunately, this often leaves shelters with huge surpluses of unnecessary items which end up doing more harm than good, placing additional burden on shelter workers and volunteers and ultimately going to landfill. 

The goal of Data Enabled Donations is to most effectively allocate these resources to maximize their utility while minimizing burden and waste. The idea is to build a platform where donation data can be analyzed, aggregated, and meaningfully displayed to the public. This information can then be used by everyone involved: donors, to more wisely choose what and where to donate; shelters, to request and redistribute donations where necessary; and victims, to locate shelters that have what they need.

All of that, however, is only the second half of the project. The efficacy of such a platform relies on good data as input. At the moment, donation data is nearly nonexistent. If it does exist, it is either low quality, not publicly available, or impossible to find. This isn’t the fault of the shelters, but a product of the chaos that consumes shelters during disasters. The first problem we have to solve, then, is the lack of data.

Translating the physical world into useful data is always challenging and messy. This challenge is multiplied in already messy situations. How can we categorize donated items coming into shelters? How can we quantify them? What qualities of the items are important to note? Most importantly, how can we streamline the data collection process while maintaining their veracity and utility? Answering these questions will help us to understand the trends in donations during disasters. With this understanding, shelters, relief agencies, and individuals can better prepare for disasters, and make better decisions when the next one inevitably comes.