Keep a date with everyday data

Having to analyse large chunks of data frequently may be most people's nightmare but for data scientist Jake Porway, it is a dream come true.

The host of the National Geographic Channel's zippy, well-received The Numbers Game says: "I love all things related to pattern recognition, data visualisation. And that happy union when a huge amount of information slams into something smart enough that I can do something with."

The second season premieres here on Wednesday at 10pm. The show uses many ways, including man-on-the-street experiments and interactive game play, to show how statistics can explain everyday situations. The topics range from toughness and superstition, to lying and desirability.

Porway, 31, who describes himself simply as "somebody who uses new technologies to make sense of data", says the show is about making mathematics and science accessible to anyone.

He adds: "We want to show how much data and math affects people's daily lives. On the show, we are always trying to connect the data to studies and help people understand them."

A self-confessed nerd obsessed with numbers, he says the show has great relevance in the context of an ongoing "data revolution". He says: "We're living in a time when data is being collected from every interaction we have, from the Internet, cell phones and satellite images, and it needs this new set of skills for people to be able to transform that data into new understanding."

Helping people to use data is nothing new for Porway, who is also the founder and executive director of non-profit organisation DataKind, formerly known as Data Without Borders.

Founded in 2011, it brings the expertise of volunteer data scientists to non-profit, non- governmental organisations and other data-rich social change organisations in order to solve social, environmental and community problems.

He says; "At DataKind, we don't talk about the data. We talk about what people want to do, what do they want to learn about the world. And then we show them how math and data can teach them."

They have worked with two Washington DC organisations: DC Action for Children, which does research into children and youth issues, and the Grameen Foundation, a non-profit organisation working to alleviate poverty around the world.

With Grameen Foundation, DataKind helped to finetune an existing programme in Uganda which uses mobile devices to provide subsistence farmers with vital information on farming.

Porway, who holds a bachelor of science in computer science and a doctorate in statistics from UCLA, attributes his involvement in social causes to his family.

"My parents (both medical doctors) raised me to feel that if you ever had some kind of benefit, you should find a way to give it back to the world," he says. "So I tried early on to use computers for good and there were a lot of opportunities to make money, but not enough to do good."

DataKind was the unexpected result of a blog post that he wrote in 2011, calling on New York's data scientists to create a league of experts to work on social problems. It went viral, the White House contacted him and DataKind was born.

He left his job at the New York Times Research and Development group in 2012 to devote more time to DataKind.

Porway, who is dating a lighting designer, is happy to keep busy with his charity and the show.

He says: "People all over the world have written to me to say that they didn't think that math and science were interesting until they saw the show."

"And that's really what we're going for - making a show that is entertaining enough to watch, but also get people excited to learn more about math and science."

This article was first published on June 9, 2014.
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