PJMF Spotlight: Data Technologist A.B. Srinivasan

Categories: Insights + Learning , Tech for Good

Most of us have worked with data in an Excel spreadsheet, one of the more basic ways of crunching numbers. When data becomes more complex, changes frequently or is very large in volume, as it does for many of the organizations that work with the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation – think satellite images or videos that hold important information or massive datasets that need to be integrated from different sources – an Excel spreadsheet won’t help. A much more robust set of tools and infrastructure are required to organize, clean, harmonize and analyze data to produce useful insights. Building data systems is the expertise of A.B. Srinivasan, a data technologist on the Data and Society team, a unique initiative at the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation that builds technical capacity and data use cultures at non-profit organizations through direct technical service and support, meaningful funding and peer learning.

A.B. Srinivasan, a data technologist on the Data and Society team, brings more than 30 years of private sector tech experience to his direct services work with nonprofits.

Srinivasan works closely with Foundation grant recipients on long-term data capacity strengthening and targeted data projects in the Accelerator Program. He provides guidance on the selection of data platforms, tools and the infrastructure needed to meet their organizational or project goals. Often, he asks questions about the quality of the datasets being collected or used, the assumptions being made about their reliability, and validating that the sought-after signals expected to improve decision making are actually present within them.

The Foundation’s support aims to create a deeper shift within organizations, and ultimately, within the entire nonprofit sector. “There has to be a culture change,” Srinivasan said. “Nonprofit organizations have to see their data as a valuable asset that they curate and treat with the TLC that is needed to make them the basis of useful decisions.” 

Without this attention, data atrophy will happen, which means data is gradually losing its value for decision making because it’s becoming corrupted and/or outdated.

With more than three decades of experience in the private tech sector, Srinivasan brings deep knowledge of the fast-changing landscape of technology to his work at the Foundation. The early days of Srinivasan’s career were spent at Apple developing software systems interfacing with hardware including early video conferencing extensions to support low-bandwidth networks. Over time, Srinivasan moved to development of distributed systems – a networked system of different computers coordinating to present an integrated perspective to the end user. 

“Nonprofit organizations have to see their data as a valuable asset that they curate and treat with the TLC that is needed to make them the basis of useful decisions.” 

A.B. SRINIVASAN

In later years, Srinivasan helped integrate relevant content services that were part of a local information service for the first smartphones, allowing people to stay up to date with news, stock updates, and find restaurants and shops. He was an early engineer at a tech startup that was one of the first to use neural networks to create a knowledge management system. At WebLogic and then BEA Systems during and immediately after the internet boom, Srinivasan worked on coordinated and reliable change management in clustered systems and infrastructure.

For 4 years at Cloudera Inc., he worked on establishing data pipelines and the associated engineering and analysis-ready warehouses that facilitated multiple data products within the organization. “To be able to provide the user with information and narratives that are rich, you have to pull all of that data together into a cohesive manner,” Srinivasan said. “It’s a massive challenge to do it reliably and without mistakes.”

During his work with nonprofits for the past four years, Srinivasan has observed that the sector struggles to recruit and retain data management and engineering talent. Nonprofits are competing for such talent with high-paying jobs in the tech sector that include the potential upsides of stock-based compensation. He would like to see more resources directed toward enriching their data culture and making the nonprofit sector an attractive option for those seeking rewarding data work.

“I look at the organizations we work with and I’m glad they are doing this,” he said. “Hopefully we can continue to expand these efforts.”