The Pittsburgh Foundation

Big data empowers nonprofitsThe UpPrize social innovation challenge

BlastPoint co-founder Alison Alvarez is using big data and mapping technology to help nonprofits pinpoint community needs and use resources strategically.

Alison Alvarez as told to Amanda Walz, a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.

ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, the best minds from the nonprofit and for-profit sectors are coming together to pursue innovative and affordable solutions to systemic social issues. In Pittsburgh, for the past year, The Forbes Funds, a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation that is dedicated to increasing the management capacity of nonprofits, partnered with BNY Mellon to host the UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge. Now in its third year, UpPrize helps community-based nonprofits adopt technology solutions to improve quality of life for the vulnerable populations they serve. Since its inception, seven catalyzing projects have been awarded a total of $1 million in development funding through the competitive program. BlastPoint, a big data mining service geared to nonprofits, won the $150,000 grand prize last year.

The concept for the company emerged three years ago, when Carnegie Mellon University MBA student Alison Alvarez pitched an idea at a university workshop for an affordable, easy-to-use data gathering tool. That got the attention of Tomer Borenstein, a computer engineer, and the two teamed up to found BlastPoint, a company that enables anyone to quickly access, visualize and export location-based data about any place in the United States. In a short time, their idea has grown into a valuable resource for community nonprofits looking to take advantage of big data. Alvarez and Borenstein used their prize money to hire interns and continue advancing their product, which is undergoing testing. Alvarez also stepped down from her day job as a product manager at a data management company to work on BlastPoint full time. 

Alison Alvarez talks about the impact UpPrize has had on furthering BlastPoint’s mission.

Just being able to say we won the UpPrize has been tremendous — really validating. I think it’s helped us sell our product. We set what we thought was a pretty ambitious sales goal of 10 customers by May 24. We ended up getting 11. UpPrize has opened us to people who might not have talked to us before. We’re getting lots of feedback and ideas and it’s been great. Even if we hadn’t won the money, that validation has been a really big boost all on its own.

We are finalizing our next release. We have a minimally viable product out there, but we want to add a lot more features and make this as elegant as possible. To that end, The Forbes Funds and BlastPoint will partner to work with a group of 10 to 12 nonprofits to let them “test-drive the tool” and give us input on what works and what needs to be improved. For us to succeed, we need nonprofits guiding us along the way.

Another thing we’re working on is building data literacy. I spoke at Pittsburgh TechFest about different ways developers can use geographical data to understand the world around them. We’re building presentations to educate others on the capabilities of data. We estimate that our tool will save nonprofits time and money by offering this information simply and directly. For example, segmentation allows an organization to recognize and market to its target audiences. Once you have that approximation, you can repeat the method for different areas.

We work with organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania, such as the Allegheny Conference, Southern Allegheny Planning and Development, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and Bedford County Development. Something will happen in your region and you have the opportunity to shape the story with data. Our tool lets people do that. One of my favorite stories is South Central Partnerships for Regional Economic Performance (PREP) in Harrisburg. President Trump did a talk in Harrisburg to celebrate his first 100 days in office, and PREP got inundated with media requests. People were asking questions about job growth and unemployment in the area. PREP used BlastPoint to pull all the data.

A special feature in our new system is Drivetime, which helps companies understand market potential. Most customers will drive to a store 15 minutes or 30 minutes down the road. But what if you don’t know how many potential customers are in your area? Drivetime allows companies to drop a pin on the map and see how many people live within a 30-minute drive from that point as well as how much education they have and how much of their paycheck they have left over after paying rent.

We premiered that feature for the Charleston Area Alliance, a really big client for us. The Alliance is a nonprofit whose whole mission is to showcase Charleston, W.Va., as an area that’s great for business. That’s a tough sell, especially in West Virginia, which most people don’t think of as a place to relocate their factory. It’s a scrappy town with huge potential, and I’m hoping our tool will make that apparent.

Original story appeared in the Report to the Community 2016-17