Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Basketball and Predictions

Basketball definitely lends itself to statistical analysis -- who's scoring, who's assisted, who's winning and losing. But predictions? Not so much. Nate Silver has an amusing take on the long shots in this year's final four in his blog and the hard-copy New York Times today. His original bracket is here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Your cell phone and your movements

Last Saturday, the New York Times ran an article describing the data Malte Spitz, a German politician, a member of the Green party, allowed to be made public. The data were six months of cell phone usage -- calls, texts, emails, and email check-ins -- collected by the cell phone provider. Spitz turned the data over to Zeit Online, which analyzed it, combined it with publicly available information such as his Twitter feed, and put it into an interactive map, available here. It's fascinating. For every day over the six months that the phone was on (and it was on a lot) you can tell where he went, and how many calls and SMS (texts) he made and received. Click on January 10, 2010, for instance, and you can watch as the phone starts out in Berlin, and then goes along the train route to Dusseldorf, tower after tower lighting up as Spitz's train progresses through the countryside.

It's a creative use of information combined with mapping technology, but it also makes me stop and think. This is just one person's information, and there are tens of millions of cell phone users in this country. And Spitz's use alone generated more than 35,800 lines of data in a spreadsheet. That's a lot of number crunching. So it's not likely that, say, my cell phone travels will turn up on the NY Times or any other web site. But my phone service provider has the information, and is no doubt aggregating it in some way. I would, too, if I were them. We know that we need to worry about protecting ourselves on Facebook. But there are other data mines about each of us available too.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Statistics and the salad bar.

If you didn't see it over the weekend, Nate Silver's NY Times Magazine column called "How to Beat the Salad Bar" is a great example of how to use statistics in daily life.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Writing successful proposals: the basics

Second in a series of how to write successful proposals; the first post, on picking your potential funder, is here. Today I'm going to talk about the basics: good mechanics, good grammar, and following instructions.

It's very important to pay attention to what the funder wants. Three pages? No more than 50? OK! With 12 point type and one-inch margins? Do it! A table of contents? Attachments? A lot of life involves following instructions (think about completing an IRS 1040). Follow them.

Attend the bidders' conference, if there is one. It's always useful to be in the room and see the body language of the person answering questions. And to hear the questions as they are asked. The summary produced after won't do the drama, such as it is, justice.

Pay attention to deadlines. Like any other piece of writing, a proposal is not something you should be completing at the last minute. If it's possible, finish a draft a week or so in advance, and put it aside for a few days. You can use the time to gather all the attachments -- chances are they are not going to change. Then look at the text again, and revise it. Remember to leave enough time for production, you may be submitting 8 or 10 copies of a lengthy document.

These reminders all sound elementary, and they are, but it's always surprising how often grant writers forget them.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Online philanthropy -- A Site Matching Grantseekers and Funders

I came across an interesting website called Foundation Source Access last week. It's billed as an online meeting place where foundations and non-profits are introduced. Rather than conducting detailed research followed by contact efforts or a letter of inquiry, non-profits have the chance to post a description of themselves, their services, and their needs. Foundations view the profiles, and can research the non-profits further and then reach out to them. Building a page looks like a pretty simple process for non-profits (the site includes tips and instructions). Non-profits can provide links to their own web sites and email addresses for contacts. There's a good search tool, too, allowing searchers to filter non-profits by geography and also by category such as Arts and Culture or Human Services.

The website also features a "Causes" page, which non-profits can use to highlight critical issues. As of today, causes include the Japan Earthquake Crisis, Leadership in Schools, and Using Film to Ignite Social Change. Each links to a more detailed page and, if relevant, a project seeking funding. The page is intended as a forum for non-profits, foundations, and others to develop ideas.

Other features are promised (the site is still a beta version). At this point, there is no charge to non-profits creating and posting profiles, and profiled non-profits can list an unlimited number of project pages in the Access directory until July. After July 1, 2011, Foundation Source Access will charge what it calls "a small fee" to list projects.

Of course, the main question for non-profits is "does it work?" To me, the answer is, it's worth a shot. Andy Bangser, the founder, writes in his blog that Foundation Source's private foundation clients have already given more than $16.5 million to (some of?) the non-profits that have built profiles. Setting up a profile looks simple. If foundations really are reviewing the profiles, then why not? It will take less time than developing a letter of intent, and the picture option means a chance to catch someone's eye in a way that prose, no matter how well-crafted, won't. Try it, and let me know how easy (or not) it is and what happens!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mannahatta, by Eric Sanderson

I must confess I was intimidated when Mannahatta, by Eric Sanderson, (Abrams Books, 2009, 352 pages) first appeared in our house. The hardcover measures 7.5 x 10.25 inches and the shipping weight is 4.2 pounds, according to Amazon. But once I opened it, I realized that only 70% of those pages are text, and a lot of those are (extremely beautiful) illustrations. The paper is very heavy. And then I started reading.

What a story Sanderson has to tell! Using Geographic Information Systems (the same technique that brings us Google maps), modern statistical techniques, a detailed Revolutionary War map, and the modern street grid, Sanderson recreates the island of Manhattan as of September 12, 1609, the day Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon up the estuary that would one day be named for him. Sanderson does a magnificent job explaining the methodology, the research, the mapping software, and the tradeoffs that went into developing this study. With its careful maps, archival photos, and clear writing, the book is at once a fascinating story and a wonderful example of how to present complex data clearly.

In 1609 Manhattan was a hilly island created by glaciers, full of streams. Now the hills are flattened and the streams run underground. Manhattan is at a climate crossroads; summers were nearly tropical, and winters, cold (well, that part is unchanged), and had as a result a wide variety of habitats: woodlands, grasslands, salt marshes, sandy beaches, rocky shores, 55 ecological communities in all -- more than the average coral reef. The island was once home to 30 varieties of orchids, and countless beavers, squirrels, river otters, and birds. (Insects too, but there are too many of those to try to account for.)

Beavers were more than a numerous inhabitant -- Sanderson shows how they were a key component of the island's ecology. They dammed streams, creating pools, which attracted deer and supported amphibians. The pools eventually filled and became marshes and then grasslands, creating new habitats that attracted yet more plants, insects, and animals.

Because a Revolutionary War map prepared by the British planning a defense of the island exists, Sanderson and his team were able to match the modern streetscape to the original topography. East 74th Street was once a brook, and Minetta Lane was named for the footbridge that once crossed Minetta Water, now Minetta Street. Harlem Meer was a tidal inlet.

Sanderson also projects what Manhattan will be like, ideally, 400 years from now. In his vision, cars will have given way to bicycles and pedestrians; our successors will use the subways to deliver freight and food. Roofs and buildings will be green. Our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will live densely, in a smaller area as rising seas will take back some of the island. Many of the surrounding neighborhoods will revert to farmland and streams so that residents can eat locally. It's a hopeful vision. May it come to pass.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Using ratings is an iterative process

Today's New York Times carries an On Education column by Michael Winerip titled "Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie." In it, he describes a teacher, whose past students and  principal say is highly competent, as likely to have her tenure request delayed, and possibly denied, because she is in a low percentile on one of three markers (despite quite high performances in the other two).

Since it began, New York's rating system for schools, and teachers, has weighted increases in test scores from year to year very highly, and rightly so. The problem comes when a school, or teacher, was successful in previous years. Once you've reached, say, 85% of students exceeding state standards, there's very little room for improvement. And it makes no sense to penalize a school, or a teacher, for minimal improvement, which is what appears to be happening in the case Winerip describes.

Experienced users of outcome measures know that once you've put outcome measures in place, you are not finished. Every couple of years you need to revise them to take account of the performance you've been measuring: new realities, new baselines. In the case of a school, or teacher, 85% of whose children are performing at expected levels, you don't look for a huge increase in performance. What you want to see is a small increase -- something that addresses that other 15% -- as well as some measure of maintenance. Otherwise, you get schools downgraded from As to Fs in the course of a year, or good teachers denied tenure. And that result risks undermining the credibility of the rating system. New York City's Public Schools' raters should consider re-examining the ratings process for high scoring schools, and teachers.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Picking a Funder: First of a series on writing successful grant applications

I'm no longer offering to write grant applications as part of my services, but I am teaching clients how to write successful grant applications as part of the editing and coaching I do. And that has made me think about how I write grants. So here is the first part of what will be a five or six part series on writing grant applications -- successful ones! Most of what I have to say is common sense -- but it's important to work with an experienced grants writer for a while before going it alone.

So -- starting at the beginning -- how do you decide whether to apply for a particular grant or respond to an RFP? Choose carefully. Writing grant applications is resource-intensive, and once you've picked one there may be another coming along at about the same time that you can't apply for. So you want to make sure that you're choosing the most likely funding source.

If you're looking at private funders like foundations, make sure that the program you propose is consistent with what the foundation wants to fund. The Foundation Center Library has a very useful Prospect Worksheet you can use to see how well your program aligns with the foundation's goals. It's available here. One word of caution: use this honestly, and it's helpful. Don't allow your vision to cloud your reason -- no matter how great your program is, if the foundation doesn't fund your kind of work, or won't work in your area, or isn't interested in serving your service recipients, you won't get the funding.

If you're looking for public funding or responding to an RFP, think about the program that's requested. Can you do all the work without straining your existing programs? There's usually a part of a proposal where you are asked to explain how the new program will fit in with your existing ones. If you're doubling your budget or staff, it's a signal to reviewers that you may be biting off more than you can chew.

Think about the type of program you are proposing. Are you replicating a model? If so, do you understand the premises underlying the model? Do you believe in them, so your staff will follow the model? Can you put all the elements into place?

A clear understanding -- of what the funder is seeking, of what you're planning to do, and how they fit together -- is key to picking what grants to apply for or which RFPs you should respond to. And picking well is a good foundation for successful grant writing.

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