Digital Humanities - Or more on Stories and Data

I'm thinking again about stories and data. Among other places, I've written on these themes here, here, here and here.

When I read Steven Berlin Johnson's incredible book, The Invention of Air, I was struck by his depiction of the 18th century coffeehouses as the social network grease of science, philososphy, and the Enlightenment. Here's what I wrote when I read it in March 2009:

"As an historian, I am trying to understand some of the roots of these various practices of information development and sharing so that I can think about where we might try to head in the future. I finished Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air" in one sitting - gleefully inhaling this well-told story of Joseph Priestly, 18th century scientist and theologian. Among other insights, Johnson shares Priestly's prescient approach to open sharing of scientific discoveries, hails the cafe society which made it possible, and notes that Priestly offered an alternative to corporate and academic bureaucracies as funders of innovation. (pp 143-146) While transatlantic letter carriers and amateur societies such as The Lunar Society (whose members were the original lunaticks (sp)) were the email and online networks of Priestly's day it was the iterative, open sharing of ideas, and reliance on diverse networks of thinkers from many disciplines that bear the most resemblance to the issues of innovation in the 21st century."
Here are some technology-enhanced revisits to that time and those tools, courtesy of Brain Pickings, a wonderfully curated treasure trove of information.

Mapping the Republic of Letters -- social network analysis of Englightenment era letters.

The E-englightenment - an internet of letters, notes, and writing from European enlightenment thinkers, connecting physical collections from libraries through electronic networks. For fun and scholarship.

London Lives - another database of archival documents, allowing historians to view old crime patterns, poverty records, and other historical documents in new ways.

All of these tools change how we can see and think about the past. They make data out of singlular objects by allowing us to see them in broader contexts, query complete sets of similar items, and wonder anew at the relationships and dynamics of the past.






Why would a foundation tweet - 6 month reflections

Back in February I stumbled into a twitter conversation from staff at The James Irvine Foundation. It turns out they were having a foundation-wide training on using social media. That led me to ask Jim Canales, CEO, why would a foundation tweet? His February responses to that question are here. At the time, Jim also agreed to reflect again on the question six months later - here are his current thoughts:

LB) Everyone loves digital analytics, so let's start there. What kind of measures is the Foundation using for its social media experiment? What are you tracking? What do the numbers show?

Jim Canales) As I noted in our initial discussion, one of our 2011 goals is to actively experiment with social media, with a particular focus on exploring how social media might help us share what we are learning, listen to our grantees, build networks and demonstrate transparency. Ultimately, what matters to us is whether we used social media to accomplish those outcomes, and that’s going to take more than a few months to measure. However, six months into this experiment, we have been following a few tangible metrics, such as:

· Twitter followers: @IrvineFdn has gone from a few hundred followers to over 1,500. I also started my own account on January 1 and now have about 560 followers. I also follow close to 200 people, and who I follow and what I learn is perhaps more valuable to me than how many followers I have.

· Social media activity among staff: At the beginning of the year we had a handful of staff with Twitter accounts but no one was particularly active on any social media platform. We now have 23 staff with Twitter accounts (most of the program staff), seven who are relatively active (at least weekly), and three who are very active (daily activity.)

· Klout score: To the extent these kinds of measurements are useful, our Klout score has been steadily increasing with @IrvineFdn now at 44 and @jcanales now at 46.


LB) Have you experienced a social media success? What was it and why do you describe it as such?


JC) Perhaps our most effective use of social media this year related to the announcement of a new arts grantmaking strategy, particularly because we integrated social media into a broader communications plan from the outset. For the first time, we held a live webinar, produced an animation that illustrated the new strategy, and invited our grantees and others to provide input by commenting on our website. We promoted all of these interactive means of communications through our social media channels and noted that our announcement was rebroadcast by many of our followers. In the past, we might have announced the new strategy on our website, focused solely on written content, and sent an email to our grantees. By thinking about how to use social media and other tools that technology offers, we ended up with a more diverse and, hopefully, creative set of communications to share the new strategy and benefit from their reactions.


LB) What's your best story of a social media Aha!?


JC) Let me refer again to the arts strategy rollout. Through this experience, we found that social media is most effective when it is connected to a broader communications plan. And we learned that the broader communications plan will likely be more creative if we recognize that our content needs to be social media-friendly. We can’t just produce long white papers and post them on our website, hoping people take the time to read them. Using a social media lens helped us communicate about our work in a more accessible manner. And the video-graphic we produced to describe our strategy has been very well received.

Personally, I continue to be impressed by how much more I am able to learn and how much new information I see through active use of Twitter. There are articles and blog posts I would have never run across on my own, and I can observe and participate in conversations, even if briefly, that help me stay connected with people I might not otherwise engage with.


LB) Where have you been most disappointed in how social media has been used by the Foundation? Have you experienced a social media failure? What was it and why do you describe it as such?

JC) As newbies to the space, I’m not sure we have yet experienced a full-fledged failure or major disappointment, but there is a challenge that we are still struggling with. For us, social media is as much of a listening tool as a broadcast tool. Being active on social media should help us learn from our grantees and other experts in our fields of interest. But given the power imbalance inherent in the funder/grantee relationship, it has been hard to generate much feedback or criticism, even friendly critiques. So we need to work harder to build the kinds of relationships with our partners that minimize that imbalance. As we expand our social media efforts, we will need to be even more attentive to exhibiting the kind of values that will be conducive to genuine dialogue. That means we need to be humble, transparent, responsive to others and open to criticism. Only then can we expect others to engage with us in the kind of genuine dialogue that will make all of our work more effective.


LB) What's next in your social media plan?

JC) While we will continue to experiment through 2011, we are beginning to move into a more rigorous implementation phase. We have benefited from significant help this summer from our Social Media Fellow, Jonny Dorsey (@jonnydorsey), who has studied best practices in the use of social media by nonprofits and is applying that learning to our approach at Irvine. We will be using hashtags and searches to find and join social media conversations that are relevant to our work. We will continue to use social media to solicit input and advice on our grantmaking strategy. And we will strive to do all of this with the humility, curiosity and openness that we strive for in all of our endeavors.


You can also read this story from Friday's Chronicle of Philanthropy on other Foundation CEOs Tweeting.


On September 27, in New York, I'll be leading a workshop called "Good Grantmaking: What's Social Media Got to Do with It?" for Philanthropy New York. I'll be joined in person by my colleague Sam Beinhacker and on twitter by folks from The Irvine Foundation and you (I hope). The hashtag for the event is ### - 10:30 - 12:00 EDT, September 27. Members of Philanthropy NY are welcome to join us in person - registration info is here


Morals and Money - Part Three

(Everyone else is talking about Jumo and GOOD. You can read about that here, here, here, and here.)

Less than twenty four hours after @jonathanscard closed up shop I was alerted to two other similar "money sharing," pay-it-forward efforts. I've posted about this online experiment in money and morals here and here, and those posts include lots of links to the online conversations and commentary about the issue.

The two other efforts brought to my attention include Talk About Design's Pay-it-Forward card, about which I've been unable to get any information (emails have gone unanswered) and the Toledo-based Pay-it Forward Card.

Talk about Design's card is basically @jonathanscard without an API showing the card balance, which they seem to think was the cause, or at least the opportunity, for Sam Odio to "repurpose" the original @jonathanscard from coffee purchases to charitable giving, and which precipitated Starbucks shutting down the experiment.

The Toledo Pay-it-Forward card appears to be a mashup of several trends - embedded giving, localism, fundraising, alternative currencies, and mobile money. It uses a dedicated frequent buyer's card that encourages local merchants and consumers to support local causes by putting the whole transactional loop on a single bar code and provides "cash back" discounts from small businesses that are then passed on to charities.

These are both experiments in morals and money - but the variables are quite different from the @jonathanscard experiment. The "coffee/charity cards" are about sharing among strangers; the "Toledo" card is about encouraging communities to support themselves. The experimental elements of all this that I am particularly interested in, and that I think bear watching from a social economy/philanthropy perspective are:

  • How does our behavior about money change as it becomes more and more virtual? (Ask yourself - do you handle cash and credit card purchases differently? Is one more "real" than the other? If the act of paying for something becomes even more "frictionless" than credit cards - how will your behavior change?)
  • All things being equal, do we "shop" (give coffee) the same way as we "give" (donate to charity)? If not, how are these act different and how do the countless efforts in expanding online giving need to be different from other online transactions. If you want to, you may know ask yourself - why didn't Jumo take off? Is it because our giving behaviors are somehow different enough from our other social behaviors (including shopping) that we can't simply export the tools from one sphere to another and expect them to work?
  • If giving becomes even more embedded in other financial transactions, what is gained and what is lost?
  • What other experiments that use these kinds of mobile, frictionless currency might be undertaken specifically with regard to shared social goods? What about sharing electronic books? Paying forward the price of museum admissions? For those lucky enough to have health insurance (US relevant only), what if your doctor visit co-pay was used to help pay for your uninsured neighbor to get preventive care, keeping them out of the ER and lowering tax burden of public health costs?
  • Where does "really virtual money" fit into all this? What about Linden dollars in Second Life, BitCoin, FarmVille, and Facebook Credits?
  • Will money ever be the same?



Online experiments in money and morals

I was really interested in the @jonathanscard experiment. Jonathan Stark started this as an experiment that allowed strangers to share cups of coffee via a single Starbucks card. I wrote about it here.


Well, it's come to an end. Starbucks shut it down, citing fear of fraud. Apparently, Sam Odio wrote a computer script that could read the card and take the money off of it. His plan? Use the money from Jonathan's Card to load onto other Starbucks cards. Auction those cards on eBay. Donate proceeds to SaveTheChildren. While he was taking money off the card (a total of $625) his brother was reloading it (with $625)

Here's what Sam Odio said about what he was doing - which was all in the interest of experiments about money online (as was Jonathan's original effort).

What a story. Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? Did Sam steal from Jonathan? Was Jonathan's experiment successful? Was Sam's? Did eBay do the right thing in shutting down the auction? Did Starbucks rain on everyone's parade by shutting off the card? Was the whole thing scripted by Starbucks to begin with? Do Jonathan and Sam exist?

Will money ever be the same? Is giving people money for free coffee "better" or "worse" than giving people money to donate to charity? Does money exist?

While the experiment was underway there were some really interesting ideas and discussions about this kind of virtual sharing and its applications in the nonprofit world. Folks were talking about sharing museum entrance passes, ways to donate art supplies through frequent buyer cards, and other examples of giving things to strangers. Giving does not, of course, require any of the technology involved in the Jonathans Card experiment. Technology also doesn't change the observation I read about the whole experiment - "there are more nice people than jerks." But the technologies involved in this - frequent buyer cards, universal bar codes, mobile phones, twitter, blogs, television, news websites - all made it an experiment that moved fast, got known about quickly, and created its own energy which in turn invited in new variables (Sam). Fascinating.

Too many questions. These are just my first thoughts. Will think more after another cup of coffee.

Read about it on Mashable, on JonathansCard, on Sam Odio's site or on the Consumerist. You can also read the story as it unfolded on twitter by checking @Jonathanscard and @sodio.



Buzzword 2011.4 - Charitable Tax Reform

2011 has seen some wild political fights, "debacles," "spectacles" and other ponderous legislative wrangling. Since we are only in the warm up rounds till the 2012 Presidential election I'd say this has all only just begun.

Real discussions of charitable tax reform have been part and parcel of legislative budget proposals all year, starting with the Simpson/Bowles Committee report and continuing through those dog days of late July, early August leading up to the debt ceiling extension.

Charitable tax law reform. Watch for it.


Buzzword 2011.3 - Storytelling

Even as technology becomes ubiquitous, embedded, and smart we still need stories. In fact, we need them more than ever.

The more data we get, the better we get at data visualization, the more we are swamped with numbers and graphs and information in general, the more we need stories. They are the oldest technology we have for making sense of things. As Drew Westen wrote in the August 6 New York Times, we need them to understand the world around us. When we don't get them, lots of things go wrong, including presidencies.

Good storytelling is going to become ever more important. Stories and data will need each other evermore.

New ways of telling stories will come into being. They already have. Consider Flipboard - which lets you curate your own magazine on your iPad, with your twitter stream mixed into the latest from Wired or other magazines. Or The Blu, an attempt at engaging the entire world in creating the ocean on the web. Or Pop-Up Magazine, a live event that brings works-in-progress to stage for one night stands. Or My Life is True, by Anne Stuhldreyer and Doug McCray (founder of Pop-Up) which presents 2 minute stories that matter. You can hear these stories on NPR and check them out on the web. Of course there are also the series of StoryCorps and This I Believe.

Some foundations are already sharing stories. Here's the story page/what we're learning from the Haas Jr Fund in San Francisco. The Foundation's site also has an interview with Dave Eggers, one of the great storytellers of our time, talking about storytelling. You can submit your story on the site. Here's a fun video about what makes Columbus special from the Columbus Foundation.

Here are some other resources on stories in our age. The Center for Digital Storytelling helps organizations of all kinds tell their stories using video and digital tools. Awhile back, TechSoup Global held a Digital Storytelling event - you can read about it here. BAVC's incredible Producer's Institute features several examples of new media stories. One which blew me away when I first heard about it is The Question Bridge which uses video and other media to enable conversations and Q and A between black men about the experience of being a black man. There are hundreds of questions and answers, each more interesting than the last. In aggregate, they become a database of insights, sliceable by every imaginable factor, interactive, and expandable.

The games and "gamification" craze ties into storytelling also - games inherently involve stories, either as part of the play itself or in recounting what happened. One of the distinguishing talents of great sportswriters is their ability to tell the same story (one side won, one side lost) over and over again in compelling ways - most often telling the story to the very people who actually watched the story unfold. Now, that's good storytelling!

Data Without Borders

I spent a brief period in the 1990s serving as a part time tech support provider working on behalf of the organization then known as CompuMentor (now TechSoup Global). I vividly remember crawling under a desk in Redwood City to help (what was then known as) the Bay Area Coalition of Essential Schools get its computer (yes, singular) hooked up to its dial-up modem and get the AOL account up and running.

How revealing is that memory? One computer for an office? Dial up? AOL? By now you may well be wondering "just how old are you, Lucy?" Well, I'm not that old. Technology has changed a LOT in a short period of time. And while my skills with wires were soon recognized as limited, I'm proud to say I went on to serve on CompuMentor/TechSoup Global's Board for seven years, which gave me a second row seat to many of the changes in technology and nonprofits.

My limited career crawling under desks was part of a much broader movement of technology circuit riders. In the 1990s these assistance providers went door to door - nonprofit to nonprofit - and helped organizations get their internet cables connected, their PBX phones running, and launch brochureware web sites. The Wikipedia entry on this gives a shout out to Gavin Clabaugh (now at The C.S. Mott Foundation) but others who got their feet wet back in the day include uber nonprofit technologist Beth Kanter and NTEN's own Holly Ross. There is still an international network of "e-riders." You can read a good history of the nonprofit technology assistance movement here.

Fast forward to today. Now we need Data Circuit Riders. And they're coming - this Fall. Data circuit riders are data scientists who work with nonprofits for the greater good. I spoke about this idea at the Personal Democracy Forum (video link) and discovered - within about 48 hours of the speech - that some good folks from The Guardian UK and elsewhere were already making it happen. The result - Data Without Borders. Here is the mission statement:

"Data Without Borders seeks to match non-profits in need of data analysis with freelance and pro bono data scientists who can work to help them with data collection, analysis, visualization, or decision support."
The DwoB folks in NYC are launching with a hackathon involving nonprofits in the Fall. I've been learning from an amazing group of data wonks from the City of San Francisco works with incredible nonprofit staff people from the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and cool volunteers to make the Summer of Smart project link to DataWithoutBorders. I'd love to see your nonprofit or foundation connect with these efforts.

Now is the time to figure out what data we have, how we can better use it, how we can use the data to tell better stories and make change happen. Connecting with data scientists and visualization experts is au courant now. The Sunlight Foundation - one of our era's great "data nonprofits" makes this case clearly in their job description for a "data visualization fellow." Trust me, you'll look back on this in a few years and doing so will be either standard practice or sound as "duh" as dial up modems.


You can get involved with DataWithoutBorders through their website, follow them on Twitter, friend them on Facebook.


Broadcasting Money


(image from jonathanstark.com/card)

I find out about some of the most interesting things I know through Twitter. That in itself is worth noting. Lots of people complain about information overload in our digital networked age. I'm marvelling in how much I know that I wouldn't know if it weren't for these tools and relationships.

On Sunday I heard about Jonathan's Card - an experiment in mobile currency - in which some guy named Jonathan Stark will buy you a cup of coffee using his Starbucks card (the one pictured above) if you take a few simple steps. What he's really playing with here is the ability of complete strangers to give and get small items as well as the fungibility and frictionless of money on mobile devices.

Here are the instructions for using Jonathan Stark's card. Note, you can get a coffee and give a coffee. Basically, he's got one loadable card that anyone can use for payment or add funds to for others to use. The experiment seems to have been underway since July 14 - at least that's the date of the first blog post I found about it. Users spent the first $30 Jonathan loaded on to the card in a matter of hours. He reloaded it once, and then the public took over - using it and reloading it. A quick scan of the card's twitter stream shows people adding $10, $50 and even $100 as the card nears empty. Developers have built a few graphic apps off the site to show the rise and fall in card value.

What on earth might this have to do with philanthropy? Well, first, it's an experiment in money, giving and getting. So whatever is learned may be useful for thinking about how we will use money (or its API, digital, mind-meld equivalent) to give and get in the future. Second, it's being built in such a way that Jonathan hopes other software developers will adapt it. Again, a set of practices (open sharing of ideas for others to use and improve) that has everything to do with how we might be making change (how we should be doing it, some will say). Third, nonprofits and philanthropists are playing with mobile technology for giving just as retailers are investigating mobile money for purchasing. I'm curious about these experiments for one big reason -- I've argued for years that philanthropy is a business of passion. This means it's not rational. It doesn't work like retail or banking or finance or publishing or other, more commercial, industries.* Experiments in mobile money allow us to compare money and giving to money and shopping.

The more philanthropy moves online, where every transaction leaves an interesting data trail, the more opportunities we have to learn a lot more about the real behaviors, motivators, information uses, and decision-triggers that lead up to philanthropic gifts. Neurofinance is getting its moment in the sun - perhaps neurophilanthropy is next?

You can follow the whole experiment on Twitter at @Jonathanscard

*Note: don't interpret this to mean that I think finance is rational. Or politics. All markets may be completely irrational. In which case there is even more reason to learn about the role of passion, interests, and irrationalities in our giving - to inform our other financial practices!





Buzzword 2011.2 - Collective Impact

The idea of government, nonprofits, the public, and commercial businesses working together is not new. A useful term for this - collective impact - was coined by FSG in an article published early in 2011 in SSIR and has helped raise the idea to prominence. Our growing realization that "there are no silver bullets, we can't do this alone" is also helping spread interest in working together.


The definition given in the article is "broad cross sector coordination." An important element to this coordination is sharing data, which is discussed in this video from TEDxCincy featuring the executive director of STRIVE, one of the examples featured in the Collective Impact article.