DEARBORN, Mich. — Ford volunteers recently tapped into their daily work skills to help a local nonprofit process two decades worth of waterway health data. About 30 employees from Ford's Global Data Insight and Analytics (GDIA) team volunteered to help Friends of the Rouge process data at its May 3 hackathon at Wagner Place in Dearborn.
Friends of the Rouge, a southeast Michigan watershed conservancy, has collected information about benthic macroinvertebrates in the Rouge River for nearly 20 years. Benthic macroinvertebrates—water bugs, in short—are a great indicator of health for a body of water such as the Rouge.
"Friends of the Rouge has been training volunteers to collect data about the watershed since about 1998," said Sally Petrella, the group's volunteer monitoring program manager. "We have funding to collect the data and do some preliminary reporting, but we don't have the staff or resources to do an in-depth analysis of all the data.
"It's complex data collected from all around the watershed," she added. "You have a lot of other factors that go into what we're finding—flow, water temperature, location—and we're really excited that Ford could help us process this information.”
This project – the first of its size for Ford's GDIA team—was the result of the determination of the organization's Women in Data Insight and Analytics (WDIA) group to leverage the organization's talents to help the environment and community. Members worked with the Ford Volunteer Corps to refine the idea of a hackathon and tailor it to the 16 hours of community service time allotted to Ford salaried workers each year.
"We were looking for something for women in global data insight and analytics for community service," said Marie Wilson, a business integration supervisor and member of the group who approached Friends of the Rouge about the opportunity. "The skill set this organization can bring to the community is huge. I've been watching them do it for the business for the past few months and the power they bring to using data is big here.”
Katheryn Welle, a GDIA data scientist who also serves as the event committee lead for the women's group, said the volunteer event was expanded so that the whole team could participate.
"You don't really get to work like this or use your professional skills like this very often," she said. "So we extended it to all of Ford GDIA so everyone could take part. Registration filled up within a day or two.”
Tara Rodriguez, a data scientist and member of the women's group, said she was called to assist with the project from a technical standpoint and her involvement grew from there.
"We asked how many people had helped to clean up the Rouge River and only three people raised their hands," she said. "One of the things we had talked about was getting a volunteer event that tech-oriented people are going to want to get involved in—and now we have a whole bunch of brains working together to try to help Friends of the Rouge.”
Petrella, who has a background in biology, is eager to see what new perspectives a more tech-oriented group can provide to the nonprofit.
"It's really interesting to interact with the employees here who are looking at it from a whole different perspective and have a lot of questions about the data, the fish and the bugs while they're crunching these numbers," she said.
Not just boots on the ground
Todd Nissen, director of Ford Volunteer Corps, said there's a growing interest in skill-based volunteering in the United States where people apply their job skills to help nonprofits and other community groups. About 15 percent to 20 percent of Ford's volunteer programs each year are considered skill-based. These include Ford attorneys providing pro bono work as well as tax office employees assisting Detroiters in filing their annual taxes.
"What we're seeing is more and more interest in people at Ford to take what they do during the day and apply it in new ways outside of work," said Nissen. "People want a meaningful work experience and these types of service projects open up new avenues for employees to give back to their communities.”
The work volunteers from Ford's global data insight and analytics team have done for Friends of the Rouge has saved the nonprofit an estimated $65,000—funds it can now use elsewhere.
"Nonprofits don't have the capacity to do the work we do every day and make it look easy," said Nissen. "There really are unlimited ways people can connect their community service back to what they do at work.”