Our Story

In his own words

The following is a response to an interview given in KDnuggets by our Co-Founder and Director, Emmanuel Letouzé, on how and why Data-Pop Alliance got its start:


L to R: Vincenzo Bolletino, Executive Director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Patrick Vinck, Data-Pop Alliance’s co-Director and co-Founder, Emmanuel Letouzé, Data-Pop Alliance’s Director and co-Founder, MIT Professor Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, Data-Pop Alliance’s Academic Director, and Hunter Goldman, Program Associate at The Rockefeller Foundation, in our incubator ThoughtWorks NYC’s office on the occasion of Data-Pop Alliance’s launch reception, November 17th, 2014.

I had the idea of creating ‘something’ like Data-Pop Alliance since about late 2012, after I left Global Pulse where I worked and wrote the White Paper “Big Data and Development” in 2010-11. That paper was my 1st foray into what was then a tiny field, and it opened doors. I was back in UC Berkeley working on my PhD in 2012-13, and was increasingly involved in the field as it starting growing, talking at a few conferences, writing a few articles—and I wanted to build something lasting with a bit of a different feel and focus compared to what existed (Global Pulse, DataKind, for instance).

I wanted to create something more academic with a greater emphasis on capacity building, on politics, and work with partners in developing countries, which I had done in Vietnam for 4 years before moving to NYC in 2004. I attended many Hackathons and ‘data dives’ during those months but I didn’t think the ‘techno-scientific’ approach and the ‘data-for-good’ narrative they embodied would make much of a difference. I thought it overlooked many aspects of the problems the world faces, as I am sure we will discuss below. That was a key factor in my thought process.

Another important factor actually was meeting and talking to Kenn Cukier, the Data Editor of The Economist, and Eva Ho, who has been involved in data science for many years, at a conference in Los Angeles in the fall of 2013, who told me to go for it. That really unlocked the process in my head because it gave me the final impulse I needed to really try hard.


Emira Woods, Director of Social Impact at ThoughtWorks (L) and Alessia Lefébure, Director of the Alliance Program at Columbia University and member of Data-Pop Alliance’s Steering Committee.

Then the project and team grew gradually. I had previously met Patrick Vinck from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at a conference in DC, whose work I admired, and then at various events; we had several things in common—he is from Belgium, he did some cartooning in his youth for instance, which is one of my other activities, his spouse and collaborator is originally from Vietnam, etc. I floated the idea with him in the summer of 2013. He was on board right away, even as we didn’t know each other very well, and as the exact contours of the ‘something’ weren’t very clear.

The next person I talked to was Sandy Pentland, at MIT, whom had been in touch a few times by email since 2011; after a few emails about the idea I asked him one day at MIT Media Lab whether he’d agree to be involved in some capacity; I was pretty nervous about it because Sandy is an important figure in the field, and he just said “sure”. I don’t really know why he agreed, but having Sandy on board was instrumental; with him we were credible. Having the institutional buy-in, a support of HHI, was also key—which Enzo Bolletino their Executive Director confirmed early on.


ThoughtWorks NYC

Then I talked to Emma Samman and Claire Melamed at ODI, whom I had known a bit for a couple of years and had several colleagues and friends in common at the UN, including Paul Ladd, who played an important role too. We wanted to build a multidisciplinary and multi-partner coalition from the beginning. Emma asked ODI’s Executive Director Kevin Watkins about it and called me 10 minutes later to say “We’re in”. We held a first informal meeting with a few key people in the space in January 2014—like Bill Hoffman from the World Economic Forum USA, Nicolas de Cordes from Orange, and it really started from there. So it seemed relatively easy to get key people excited about and by the idea, but that was built on years of connections, and the implementation was and has been of course much harder!

The first question was the name. It’s Paul Ladd, who is a close friend of mine, who found the name ‘Data-Pop’ after agonizing naming sessions—we wanted something that had data, that talked about people, about an explosion, that was a bit fun. Later we realized that there was another Data Pop, an advertising company in LA, who asked us to change the name, and we settled for Data-Pop Alliance, which I think conveys better what we are about—a coalition. The other challenge obstacle was getting other people interested and involved—advisers, partners etc.—to solidify the whole project. That took a bit of time and legwork too. I traveled a lot. In general the response was very positive. Only one institution said they were not interested in even discussing potential collaboration—oddly so my own alma matter in France, Sciences Po. They said they didn’t see the need.


Cartoons by Manu

The second to last piece was the initial funding. I had been approached in the fall of 2013 by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of their scoping of the Big Data space, and I then talked to them about the idea. After several months of discussions, they asked how much it would take to actually set it up, and asked for a proposal. We got $400,000 in core seed funding, which for me was beyond anything I would have hoped for a few months earlier.

The last important piece was finding a space in NYC where I live—even as I am affiliated with HHI and MIT Media Lab and finishing my PhD dissertation at Berkeley. I was invited on a panel organized at ThoughtWorks NYC in early 2014 and then asked them if they incubated non-profit start-ups. It took several meetings, but they eventually agreed in. Since then ThoughtWorks has been amazing to us. We ‘officially’ launched at ThoughtWorks NYC in November 2014, with the Rockefeller Foundation and most of the people who had been involved and supported us until then. But it’s only the beginning…

Video of Kevin Watkins, Executive Director of the Overseas Development Institute on the launch