CorrelAid Network When Big Altruism Meets Big Data

A college student from Germany created a network of 400 big data experts who are volunteering to help non-profits hone their operations and better serve their target groups. For CorrelAid founder Johannes Müller, it all started on a cold night two years ago in Sweden.
Volunteers at CorrelAid, a group of big data analysts who do pro bono work for non-profits, at a workshop for 25 German data scientists in Bonn in 2016.

Johannes Müller, a young analyst of big data, wanted to apply his skills for the greater good.

While completing a college year abroad in 2015 in Gothenburg, Sweden, the 22-year-old had an idea: Why not marry the donated time of big data volunteers with poor, starving non-profits?

Two years later, CorrelAid, Mr. Müller’s startup, is now drawing on the time and services of 400 data analyst volunteers across Germany, who have donated thousands of hours to help non-profits gain valuable business insights based on a new, deeper statistical understanding of their data.

“Most non-profits are already doing a great job,’’ Mr. Müller, 22, said in an interview from Oxford  University in England, where he is completing a master’s degree in social policy. “But by analyzing and better organizing the data they have, they can do an even better job.’’

That was the case at Schwarzkopf Foundation, a non-profit named after a Berlin industrialist family that promotes European unity and peace among young people. The foundation provides travel grants to participants in the European Youth Parliament, a non-profit program that educates adolescents and young adults from 40 countries about European integration and governance.

CorrelAid volunteers helped the Schwarzkopf Foundation devise a strategy to encourage rural youth to attend European Youth Parliament events on the continent. Here, a scene from a European Youth Parliament event in the Ukraine in 2016.

Last year, the foundation asked CorrelAid volunteers to make sense of 2,400 responses the organization had received to its survey of youth parliament participants. Analyzing the data, CorrelAid confirmed the foundation’s suspicion that a disproportionate number most active in youth parliament came from big urban areas, and few from rural parts of Europe.

The revelation: Youth from the city had the time, knowledge and money to pay the out-of-pocket expenses to travel abroad for youth parliament events. Rural students, because of longer travel times, faced higher costs, and as a result were less active in the program, the analysis showed.

With this insight the foundation is targeting its funding to pay for the travel expenses of youth from rural areas, to bolster their representation at youth parliament events in Europe.

CorrelAid made the insight possible after its volunteers donated hundreds of hours of free time analyzing survey data, said Anna Saraste, a program lead at the foundation, which is based in Berlin.

“It was a very, very positive experience for us,’’ Ms. Saraste, a native of Finland, said. “It was amazing insight that CorrelAid brought and was super practical. On our limited budget, we would never have been able to afford this. I think what the group does is outstanding. There should be more like this.’’

It was a dark and cold winter night in Sweden two years ago when Mr. Müller, whose parents are biologists, got the idea of harnessing the altruism of the college, academic and professional communities with the very real needs of struggling non-profit organizations

It was a dark and cold winter night in Sweden two years ago when Mr. Müller, whose parents are biologists, got the idea of harnessing the altruism of the college, academic and professional communities with the very real needs of struggling non-profit organizations.

To test interest, he sent an email out on his social networks to other data analysts, asking what they thought of creating CorrelAid, which is a mix of the words “correlation’’ and “aid.’’

He was surprised to receive 30 responses in less than 24 hours – from students, faculty members, economists, engineers and IT specialists – all looking to donate their time to good causes.

“This told me that there are a lot of people out there who want to do something to better the world,’’ Mr. Müller said. He founded CorrelAid in 2015 from his home on Lake Constance in southern Germany along the border with Switzerland.

Correlaid helped the German VDCH Association of College Debating Clubs to analyze their data on nearly 1,000 members from 40 clubs around the country. Pictured: A debate competition in March 2016 in Berlin sponsored by Die Zeit.

It was in the same lakeside town that Elisa Schwarz, then vice president for public relations at the VDCH German Association of College Debating Clubs, heard Mr. Müller speak about CorrelAid. VDCH is the umbrella organization for all academic debating societies in Germany.

Together with the DDG German Debating Society, the group’s alumni association, they asked CorrelAid volunteers to analyze results of a survey they had conducted of active and former college debaters to develop a profile of the group for prospective fundraisers.

Over the course of 2016, CorrelAid analyzed the data and compiled the first coherent picture of more than 1,000 participants in more than 40 clubs in Germany.

“We couldn’t have done this without CorrelAid; this was a big gift,’’ said Ms. Schwarz, who is now a research associate at the University of Constance in Bodensee. “We had some data, but there were a lot of dead entries in our systems, and we needed a new, current picture for new sponsors.’’

Five CorrelAid volunteers – college students studying communications science, psychology, statistics, political science and survey research, worked on the project over the course of last year. Based on the insights, the college debaters are now putting together brochures aimed at new sponsors.

Two years on, the network of CorrelAid volunteers is growing, and its work expanding.

A recent project was for Street Football World, a non-profit that organizes street soccer games and tournaments for urban youth in Europe. The organization used CorrelAid to help standardize the process of awarding financial grants to sponsors holding street soccer tournaments.

This summer, when hundreds of matches take to the asphalt, the 12th man on each squad will be an unseen volunteer from CorrelAid, an organization of passionate big data do-gooders.


Kevin O'Brien is the Editor in Chief of Handelsblatt Global. To reach him: [email protected]