Volunteer Spotlight: Sébastien Ouellet

Meet Sébastien! He’s a GIS specialist and his contributions to DataKind go way back. From developing the route optimization tool with SOIL in Haiti, which eventually was replicated with Sanergy in Kenya, to working on an early prototype of our Data Observation Toolkit, Sébastien has been a longtime DataKind volunteer. He continues to support and advise DataKind Singapore as they help to operationalize the route optimization tool in Kenya and expand it to Sanima in Peru. Check out Sébastien’s DataKind journey below!

How and why did you first become involved with DataKind?

It’s been six or seven years, I’m not sure exactly! I got involved through learning about civic tech. My degree is in machine learning, and I’m in Ottawa. I got really involved in the civic tech community and was looking for ways to get more involved. I looked into a few organizations and came across DataKind. I liked that they were global, working on projects globally, and were open to volunteers from anywhere. I responded to an open call for volunteers, and was selected for a project with a Central Florida Foster Care organization – and that was the first project, after that I just kept coming back.

What non-technical skills have you found essential in this role?

Things like self-pacing, time management, and project management are really important, especially for some of the longer-term commitments. You have to show progress to the partner during every check-in, and that’s often not straightforward, it’s big work and highly complex, so you have to be organized. And of course, you have to work with other volunteers, and they’re all working around their regular jobs so there’s challenges there.

How has your work with DataKind influenced or supported your career so far?

It’s been really relevant in ways I didn’t anticipate. For example, when I talk at work about technical topics, and have tasks that are less about technical skill, like mentoring the interns, I use the same language as when I’m working with partners and DataKind. I talk about pain points, how to solve a problem for stakeholders, how we consider external users, so it’s all related and it’s given me some new perspectives.

What are one or two projects that have really stood out to you?

The one I’m currently working on, with SOIL Haiti, a sanitation program. We’re working on optimizing the routes drivers are taking back and forth to the facility. They were having problems with their trucks not having enough capacity for the route that they’re taking and struggling to match that with dynamic sets of customers. We first started working on this project around 2019, and we implemented the first solution. It was really successful and people were happy, and I moved on to other projects. Recently, we’ve come back to work on some extensions to that project. The partner said they’re really happy with the progress, and they’ve done some work on their own to improve their use of it. They’ve now identified some more needs that they’d like us to address. Now, we’re working on how we can create a digital public good. Since it’s already open source, there’s an emphasis on user experience and it’s really interesting.

Other than data science, what else are you passionate about?

I’m passionate about swing dancing. I’ve done a lot of lindy hop, but unfortunately COVID closed down a lot of the options for doing that. I’ve been doing it on my own and teaching others, so I have a lot of dance partners! I’m also a big fan of games. I do RPG game design with some friends. We’re really into designing systems so that’s fun, and just recently we’ve been playing around with creating a discord bot using Chat GPT to be our game master. It actually works!

What advice would you give to someone considering volunteering for DataKind?

It’s really interesting work and it’s real work. You have to have some self-discipline and time management. It can be stressful to just organize a bunch of strangers on Slack. I’d say, be kind to yourself, just communicate about what’s happening, and make sure you find a spot for you that you can commit to, especially for the first time volunteer. There’s always more options to do more if you want!

About Volunteer Spotlights

Our volunteers are the lifeblood of our mission. They’ve inspired people to use their skills in ways they never dreamed of. They’ve slayed misconceptions. They’ve shown organizations trying to make the world a more humane place how data science and AI can change the game. We’re honored (and thrilled) to feature their stories in DataKind’s Volunteer Spotlight series. Follow this series to learn about their impeccable skill sets, their work with our brilliant project partners, and what inspires them to give their time, resources, and energy to causes that matter. 

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