Stories and data in our times

Lately I've been thinking about how massive databases might change how we think about "anecdotal" evidence. You know the old trope, "The plural of anecdote is not data." But maybe it could become so.


With the advent of tools like Google's Ngram Viewer, which you can use to compare the trend lines of any two words over time drawn from the millions of books Google has digitized, what were once isolated incidents may be becoming data. Here's what Ngram shows if you compare "philanthropy" to "charity" over time:



The graph shows the frequency of the two words as they appear in English in all books scanned, covering 1800-2000. There is an amazing drop in the frequency of charity. Philanthropy barely budges, even through the creation of American foundations, the boom of philanthropic product innovation in the 1990s and the last decade in which philanthropy (we thought) was suddenly being talked about everywhere. Maybe we're talking about it, but it doesn't appear that we were writing about it.

Another site, The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has 425 million words from spoken sources (TV, radio), magazines, fiction and academic texts. This site allows you to run a comparison over time, or see how frequently one of the terms (I chose "philanthropy") appears in each of the different source types. In all source types there is ~2.5x increase in frequency from 1990 to 2009 for the term "philanthropy". If we narrow the search just to frequency of "philanthropy" in spoken form we see that it doubles in frequency - broadcast sources such as NPR, CBS, ABC, PBS, NBC and Fox mention philanthropy twice as often in 2009 in 1990.

Now, that little experiment doesn't prove anything. But the tools that made it possible - the databases of words - are only one such new tool that might change how we think about stories as data, not just stories and data.

GlobalGiving is experimenting with collecting stories as data - so far they have more than 15,700 just from Uganda and Kenya. The goal is to collect stories of service from users and intended beneficiaries of development aid - going beyond the organizations that receive the funding to the actual residents of the communities to hear what they think.

Mobile phones and text messaging make this kind of data collection cheaper, faster and more imaginable than ever before. It's possible to use text messaging to ask simple questions of lots of people and aggregate the answers. It's possible for everyone to be a citizen monitor of local aid and built projects.

It also raises new privacy questions, runs the risk of putting yet another layer of funder demand into the equation, and, in worst case scenario, would violate the trusted relationships between residents and organizations that are doing good work.

Think about how eBook readers as the delivery system for reading material could change what we know about what kids are reading - this is what WorldReader hopes to make happen. The NY Times has been writing a great series on "Humanities 2.0," about how technology is changing how we teach and learn about literature and history. And massive data bases let medical researchers search other scientists data sets for unexpected applications of certain drugs or insights from one study that could be just the breakthrough they need in their field. Sergey Brin has donated $50 million to bring this kind of massive data mining to work on research in Parkinson's disease.

The data-rich environment we know inhabit is not made up solely of quantitative data - numbers. It also includes massive numbers of stories, words, pictures, movies, audio files. Each bit by itself may be little more than an anecdote. Taken together, they become data. The sheer quantity of these "bits" or "anecdotes" change what we think of as data, how we mine the data, and what we look for. The size of the source is changing the nature of the data we use and the stories we will tell.

Institutions by and for their users

On Thursday, New York City will host "The Nexus: Global Youth Summit on innovative Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship." The meeting was organized by a group called Search for Common Ground and the Young Donor Network.

The conference is partly a result of previous networking events led by the United Nations Programme on Youth of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the White House

The program options at the conference include topics such as Social Media for Social Good, Organizing Young Wealth & Influence in Your Country, and Youth Movements: Transformational Change. What's interesting about this is the real involvement of young(er) people - late teens to early 30s, in making it all happen. They are the speakers and organizers of the conference, not just the attendees. And that is a good thing. The technological tools, global assumptions, and involvement in social movements of this generation and the next will shape our world for the next 20-40 years.

Here's one simple example of what this means. The Search for Common Ground is, by design, a globally networked organization focused on conflict resolution and peace building. It has offices in several countries, programs and leadership councils around the globe, and shares its resources on the web. They provide training, television, print, radio and web programming, readily admit to failures and the need for "incremental transformation." They have a resource section with their program evaluations, guides to what they were looking to learn, and easy to navigate blurbs on each of the evaluations. It's neither a young organization (founded in 1982) nor is it led by youth - judging from the photos and bios of its board and senior management.

The Young Donor Network is a project of the Search for Common Ground and it appears to be trying hard to be "by and for it's core membership" - here's a link to a "donor lifecycle" chart they've got on their site - direct, easy to use, written in clear language - for young donors, by young donors.

What strikes me about this is the ready and clear statements about who the programs are run by and who the programs are for - whether we are talking about the Nexus conference, the Search for Common Ground (SFCG) or the Young Donor Network. All three are actively shaped by the very people they also aim to serve. All three involve "outsiders" - in the case of SFCG there are very direct statements about when "foreigners" are seen as helpful and when in country staff and partners are most important.

It is leadership of and by participants - networked across countries, online and offline, doers and donors, that is interesting to me in all of this. I'm thinking about this on an organizational and programmatic level and what it means for stakeholders. In the larger scheme of things - the issues scheme - we are all stakeholders in peace building and conflict transformation or climate change.

How do the choices we make organizationally reflect our view of who is a stakeholder in an issue? And how is this changing with technology? Tuesday's NYT raised this in an entirely different context - those who participated in online hack attacks who may or may not have seen themselves as protestors, activists, or lawbreakers. Who is "in" and who is a stakeholder - online and off - this has real implications for how we organize ourselves and shape our institutions (and our conferences).

Lots to think about here....your thoughts?

Innovation for the public good

A few resources on innovation that you may find useful:


Two papers on funding innovation in public schooling, looking at the US Department of Ed's experience with the I3 Fund:

And a funny cartoon from XKCD on data standards (and the public good)




Information - "the single best basis for improvement"

Mario Morino's book, Leap of Reason, is the clearest articulation of how and why we should be thinking hard about data, information and learning in order to do what we do. Take 6 minutes and listen to Mario himself:



I think we're beginning to reinvent the core elements of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. This include the kinds of organizations we will build and support to produce and distribute shared social goods. Leap of Reason is much more pragmatic then the abstract, long term reinvention that I'm watching occur. The core idea - the role of information in creating shared social goods - will persist. In fact, it may well be at the core of the institutions and networks we are just beginning to invent.

The new social economy

My colleague at Stanford, Rob Reich, coined a phrase, the New Social Economy, that I find very useful. I define this economy as "Organizations and financial structures that deploy private resources for shared social benefits." Shorthand - the sector formally known as nonprofit and philanthropy.


Why do we need a new term? Because the innovations on the edges of nonprofits and philanthropy - from impact investing to social enterprise, B corporations and informal networks of volunteers, digitally created shared goods held in common - these are not marginal extras, they are very much a part of how we create public goods in the 21st century. The reality is that these types of enterprises (nonprofit, mission based for profit, b corporations) and types of funding (impact investing, giving, SRI) all exist in the same "sandbox" - what separates them are old mental models and 20th century regulatory structures. As long as the discussion continues as if these forms operate at odd with each other we prevent ourselves from seeing solutions built on their collective potential.

The new social economy uses all of these tools - financial and structural - to address our challenges from social inequities to climate change. Different problems will require different applications of these tools, some will be more philanthropy and nonprofit, some will be more market based, others may require new kinds of advocacy.

I've been speaking about this new economy over the last year and it is at the core of the work I'll be doing at Stanford. Recent slides I've used in discussions are online here and embedded here - note that these focus on what the social economy looks like from the perspective of donors.

Navigating New Social Economy

What is most important about this new social economy is that it is just beginning. By naming it and seeing its component parts we immediately see that the picture is incomplete. There are institutional forms yet to be invented, digital movements still in their infancy, new forms of governance we can only just imagine. There is much "to be invented" in this economy - from new structures to new financial tools to new regulations and means of oversight.


Olga Alexeeva

We talk a lot about measuring success in philanthropy - have we made a difference with our efforts? How do we know if we've made a difference in our own lives, as people? Are we doing our best? What metrics matter to us? Friends, family, health, material wealth, experiential diversity, age, depth of experiences, ideas we generate?


I'm at an age where I and many of my peers are simultaneously raising young children and caring for or losing our aging parents. A few years ago I was amazed at how frequently I found myself consoling or being consoled by friends, colleagues, peers on the loss of a loved one. Now I am not surprised by the frequency, though the shock and sadness of each loss are raw and new and intense each and every time. Technology enables us to learn of losses immediately and in our interlocked professional and personal circles. In just the past week, while mourning a passing in my own extended family, I heard through email of the passing of the infant son of a distant work colleague and the unexpected passing of Olga Alexeeva. (You can read more about Olga here, here, and here)

I met Olga years ago in Budapest when the two of us were asked (by whom, I don't remember) to lead a panel on community philanthropy in the US and Eastern European countries. We planned the panel about 2 hours before showtime, as we had been unable to coordinate anything in advance. I remember her asking the toughest questions - of me and of the audience. Shortly after starting the "panel," Olga and I were both sitting in the audience, chairs all turned from audience-style to an odd circle-type shape, having a rich, argument-filled discussion with 50 or so other people. When the session ended, Olga clapped me on the back and said "That was fun - let's do it again," and wandered off, talking to everyone in the room. Before we had started I had known very few people in the room, but having spent time with Olga I now felt like I knew almost everyone.

Over the years I'd heard from her occasionally, served on advisory boards and panels with her, and followed her professional career changes with interest. I can't say I knew Olga well. I can say that she taught me many things about community philanthropy in Russia and elsewhere, about speaking your mind, and about reaching out beyond your comfort zone. She challenged ideas she didn't like and often made them better with her suggestions. She pushed conference organizers and magazine boards to look for new opinions and push past the known pundits in the field. I've learned things about people in our shared professional circles from reading their tributes to Olga and realized even in death she was connecting people and ideas. I can't say how Olga measured her own life or what she hoped for. I can say that she enriched my life and for that I am grateful.

Failing forward

(cross posted on Alliance Magazine's Blog)


Thomas Edison is supposed to have said, "I haven't failed, I've found 10,000 things that don't work." Failure of this form is a popular topic of conversation among philanthropists these days. It fits in with their interests in design thinking, rapid prototyping, and much of the literature on how innovation happens. In technology innovation in particular, the idea of "failing fast" (and cheaply) is almost gospel.

I'm all for the principle of "failing fast" and learning from our missteps. Given all the focus on outcomes and measurement and learning that have come to be part of philanthropy, we ought to be getting better at knowing when we're succeeding and, concomitantly, when we're failing. One challenge has been finding ways to talk about our mistakes. As a sector, we've been much more willing to talk about talking about failing, than to actually talk about failure.

There are a couple of interesting efforts under way to help us along with this.

One of these is the development community's website "Admitting Failure." There you can "browse failures," "Search for Failures" and "Share a failure." Stories come from individuals speaking from their own experience and from organizations. Some of the stories include just the facts, others provide the author's perspective on what went wrong and what could have been done better.

To get the ball rolling the hosts of the site are offering the "Institute of Brilliant Failures" prize - applications are due by October 2011 - submit yours here. Hats off to those who've taken the step of getting the conversations started. Judging by the lack of comments on the posts, the rest of us are still to shy to chime in and keep the conversations going. The site comes to us from the folks at Engineers Without Borders.

Another effort is FailCon - short for fail conference. This is focused on the software community and I like their purpose statement: "to study their own and others' failures and prepare for success." A social sector version called FailFaire was held in 2010, looking specifically at failures in technology deployment in the social sector. A great effort that we should think about taking more broadly.


Finally, I've been watching the development of a site called WorkingExamples.org I learned of it while writing the paper, Evaluating Innovation as part of the MacArthur Foundation's work on Digital Media and Learning. The idea behind Working Examples is to share work in progress, gather feedback, find related or countering ideas, and “connect ideas.” While not specifically about failure, working examples are, by definition “in progress.” They may be half-baked. They may need a lot of tweaking. By building a place for people to share work at this stage, the WorkingExamples site provides a place for ideas to be “adjacent” to other ideas that might nudge them along or help them become fully formed.

Using the WorkingExamples site is technically easy and culturally hard. Most of us aren’t that good at sharing raw ideas and getting feedback. Few of our institutions encourage us to do this; in fact they encourage exactly the opposite. What interests me about the cultural effects of blogging and tweeting is that they thrive on us sharing short ideas and “raw” writing. They work because we’ll put something out early, comment and share on it, revise it, and keep the conversation going. If we can bring those same behaviors to sharing our substantive ideas and our work in progress I think we’ll all benefit.

Data visualization more common, more important

I've written a lot about data and data visualization. A few weeks ago I even awarded "The Person's Choice Award for Foundation Data Presentation" to the Knight Foundation for their great work on interpreting and sharing what they've learned from their Knight News Challenge.


One sign of just how important it is becoming to present information in these engaging ways is the advent of "commodified, off the shelf" visualization tools. These are online, free software programs that will take your data and slap it on a map or make a few graphs for you. In many ways this was started when Microsoft started embedding shared templates into Excel and Powerpoint - within a few years certain ways of seeing information presented became very common in certain circles. Since then, more interesting visuals have become available online. One site - Many Eyes - has long been available. The newest of these sites, Visual.ly - turn your tweets into a "solographic." Here's mine:



All I did to make that picture was load my twitter account into the link that I received in email. The point of Visual.ly is to "Show your data." They have dozens of different presentation formats available. They've taken the "art form" of these cool infographics and made it readily available.

So, what's left? Well, the hard stuff is left. Not that art is easy - but there are certain common ways of presenting data that these kinds of online visualization tools will make ever more common. Excel made it easy to make bar and pie charts. These tools will make it easy to make bubble and infographics. But it still matters that you use the right picture for the right data for the right story. In fact, the more common these pictures become, the more important the ability to understand the story in the data becomes.

You still need to know what you're trying to say. You still need to know what kinds of data you have or where to find the data you need for your purposes. You still need to know what kind of data representation (picture) helps make what kind of point. We all need to get better at reading the nuance, understanding the differences, and thinking through the implications of these cool pictures. No doubt about it, a picture is worth 1000 words. Especially if it shows us something we can't see in the raw numbers or raw words, shows relationships we wouldn't otherwise find, or sparks new questions. If not, it's just a cool picture.

Trend Collision/Buzzword Smash


Consider this as a Hollywood pitch: "It's like Groupon + Hyperlocal + Crowdfunding. For Good"

Here it is - GiveCorps.

The irony? I was wasting my lunchtime on the brightest shiny object in today's tech skies (Google +) when this came through on that "old fashioned" news site, Twitter.