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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Former Microsoft CEO Invests $59 Million in Education Project with Austin Tech Firm

By Mary Mazzoni

The U.S. education system continues to lag behind other developed nations. Only two U.S. states have high-school graduation rates above 90 percent, and 15 states graduate less than 80 percent of their students. American kids are also more likely to be absent from school compared to their peers in other developed countries, with chronic absenteeism rates exceeding 30 percent in some cities.

These numbers caught the attention of billionaire businessman and philanthropist Steve Ballmer, who owns the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team and served as CEO of Microsoft from 2000 to 2014. Back in August, the Ballmer Group—the philanthropic organization co-founded by Ballmer and his wife, Connie—announced a five-year, $59 million commitment to Austin technology firm Social Solutions in order to improve educational outcomes for students across the country.

"After studying this space for the past couple years, we are making our largest commitment yet to improving data use for nonprofit, education and social services work, and we hope this acceleration of innovation will really help these organizations more effectively serve kids and their families," Ballmer said in a statement announcing the investment back in August.

Founded in 2000, Social Solutions provides performance management software to help government agencies and nonprofits maximize their impact by tracking the outcome of their programming.

The company works with over 18,000 nonprofit organizations, community groups and government agencies from all 50 U.S. states, as well as communities in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Latin America. It offers two primary software products: Apricot for smaller organizations, such as Kansas City's Local Investment Commission (LINC), and Efforts to Outcomes (ETO) for larger nonprofits and government social service agencies, including a collaborative human service network in Boulder County, Colorado.

Clients use Social Solutions' software to combine data from local participating community programs, school districts and government entities and create actionable insights to better serve program participants. LINC, for example, uses Apricot software to share data between local schools and its after-school programs.

By trading paper records for data-sharing software, the organization can easily track critical indicators like attendance for over 7,000 students across five school districts in the region—allowing program managers to provide individualized attention to the students they serve, according to press information from the Ballmer Group. A broad range of other social service programs, including those focused on job placement, neighborhood improvement, family support and mentoring, can also use the software to share their data with groups like LINC.

The partnership with the Ballmer Group will fund expanded services and improved design on the Apricot and EOT platforms and help make them more readily available for organizations serving K-12 students. TriplePundit attended Social Solutions' annual Impact Summit in Austin last month, where we learned more about how this innovative partnership seeks to harness technology to serve students better.

Using data to improve student outcomes

One in five American families receive services from community organizations, government agencies or both, Alexis Zotalis, director of education solutions for Social Solutions, said at the Impact Summit in Austin. But most of the information these groups gather about program participants is latent—meaning other local nonprofits and government service agencies can't access it or use it to make informed decisions.

The Apricot platform puts this latent data to work. In the case of this latest project, it will serve to connect nonprofit data about K-12 students with education-based data from participating school districts. For example, LINC has data-sharing agreements with local school districts in Kansas City. If a student enters a LINC after-school program, volunteers can easily pull up information from the district's student information system (SIS)—such as grades and attendance—and use it to tailor their action plan. Likewise, the district can refer struggling students to groups like LINC in order to reduce their risk of failing classes or dropping out of school.

By pairing information together, nonprofits and school districts are able to see what type of programming has a measurable effect on an individual student’s performance at school. Additionally, a predictive analytics feature recommends specific actions to improve a student's chance of success, but it's ultimately up to nonprofits and school districts to chart their own paths forward using the available data. "This is a complimentary data system that's meant to arm [nonprofits and schools] with data to make a more informed approach," John Manganaro, VP of product for Social Solutions, said at the Summit.

The first iteration of the Ballmer-backed solution will be available to nonprofits in April. Social Solutions and the Ballmer Group will identify priority cities and geographies based on a number of factors—such as the percentage of students considered economically disadvantaged, as well as existing data-sharing partnerships between school districts and local groups, Zotalis said.

San Antonio, Kansas City and Seattle will be first to pilot the data-analytics dashboard—with two to five public school districts and a host of nonprofit groups participating in each city, Joel Martins, chief technology officer for Social Solutions, told TriplePundit. The company hopes to eventually roll out its data-analytics dashboard in “at least 20 cities,” CEO Kristin Nimsger told the Austin Business Journal.

Balancing student privacy with improved services

As Ade Adeniji of Inside Philanthropy recently reported, “efforts to use new technology to track and assess students haven't always worked out.” Adeniji cited the now-defunct InBloom, a $100 million student data project backed by the Gates Foundation, which “sparked strong resistance from educators and parents worried about student privacy.”

For their part, the Ballmer Group and Social Solutions seem keenly aware of these concerns. "The risk is inherent," Martins said of storing and sharing student data. "That's something that both SIS systems providers and Social Solutions take extremely seriously. We're proud of our robust security standards and the certifications that we obtain to verify those standards."

Apricot's education data dashboard is compliant with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and certified by the likes of Booz Allen Hamilton. All pilot participants already have data-sharing agreements in place, and future agreements will be made on a district-by-district basis, Martins said. Some districts are looking to require students or their parents to opt in to having SIS data shared with third parties, for example.

Other districts may choose to share only aggregate data that does not contain students' personal information, Manganaro said in Austin. "The data science models can still leverage that data," he explained. "It's still incredibly impactful to have aggregated data to say, for example, students that are 14 to 16 years old and live in these ZIP codes trend toward a certain behavioral pattern."

"Data security and privacy is something we've invested a lot of time and money in to make sure we get it right," Martins added. "I'm really confident not only in the security and privacy of our solution, but also in the work that communities can do with our technology to better their school districts and their communities."

The bottom line

The Ballmer Group's investment will be split in two—half will support research and development for the Apricot platform, and the other half will fund grants that allow nonprofits serving students to access the platform for a reduced cost. The philanthropic organization will obtain a financial interest in Social Solutions in connection with the partnership, which may return a profit if the company increases in value and is sold or goes public, the Ballmer Group said.

By testing its proof of concept, Social Solutions hopes to pave a way forward for greater data-driven collaboration around student success. "In addition to Social Solutions and the Ballmer Group, we view this as a public and private partnership," Zotalis said. "Having participation between nonprofit community organizations, school districts, and government agencies is what we believe it will take to drive progress and help increase the economic mobility of disadvantaged students."

Image credits: 1) NeONBRAND via Unsplash 2) and 3) Courtesy of Social Solutions 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni