Social sector organizations are in the business of changing the world, and the information they collect and use should be the catalyst for making that happen. Courtesy of broadband Internet and mobile wifi we now have global, low-cost ways to share data that every social-purpose organization can plug into. From it, they should be able to draw what they need about previous experiments, effective practices, and achieved outcomes, as well as what has failed and why. That way, local social entrepreneurs can mimic what works elsewhere and share their ideas, successes, and failures.
Here are two organizations doing just that. The Awesome Foundation enables funders on four continents to find great ideas to support. CrisisCommons relies on open data to let others quickly learn from each other to reach people in immediate need.
In 2010, Tim Hwang and a few friends in Cambridge found themselves questioning the costs associated with raising a few thousand dollars to launch an online project. Their colleagues at Harvard and MIT regularly devoted hundreds of hours to proposals for million dollar investments, but they only needed a few thousand bucks to test some software. Several pub conversations and a few Facebook posts later, the Awesome Foundation was born — a small group of friends, each committing $100 a month, would accept proposals online for "awesome projects." Each month the group would put $1,000 to the best idea from artists, community organizers, and techies. The core principles of the group: Make it awesome. Share the ideas. Let folks know.
Fast forward three years. There are now Awesome Foundation chapters in 55 cities in eleven countries. They've funded art projects, wi-fi routers, and community events. Many of their projects go on to raise a next level of funding from Kickstarter or institutional investors. In 2011 the John S and James L Knight Foundation invested $500,000 to expand the Awesome Foundation's model to Detroit.
Open data — the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use as they wish — was the key to scaling Awesome Foundation's core idea. Proposals are open, the process is easily copied, and local adaptation is encouraged. When you apply to one Awesome Foundation you do so knowing that other chapters may take an interest in your proposal, and that what you produce in Toronto will be shared with peers in Melbourne.
CrisisCommons is another example. For years, a small group of crisis responders from nonprofits and the federal government had been meeting for coffee in Washington, DC and talking about how technology could facilitate disaster response. When the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010 they had a ready-made network of project managers and techies in cities all over the world. Within days the network organized to develop lightweight mobile apps for crisis responders.
The tools were built in weekend shifts by coders who worked locally and then shared their code globally for similar groups in other countries. Responders in Haiti could test it, use it, and share their feedback with the dispersed network. Whoever was available to fix the bug or add the features could do it. The effort, called CrisisCommons, focused on building a network of peers and a system for sharing data.
The level of information-sharing that Awesome Foundation and CrisisCommons do is key to the organizations' ability to make a difference. But this is not the norm. Instead most social good organizations adopt an institutional replication model, where an organization focuses on reproducing the institution, not reusing the data.
This needs to change in two ways:
First, nonprofits should be using their data for social purposes only. We already distinguish nonprofit corporations from their commercial counterparts by the "non-distribution" clause that determines how they use excess revenue. A nonprofit must reinvest any "profits" in the work of the organization rather than benefitting private individuals. That's the little trick of corporate code that maintains public trust in the enterprises and keeps resources focused on the social mission.
Nonprofits should take similar heed when it comes to using the personal data of their donors and beneficiaries. To ensure the ongoing support and trust of their supporters, nonprofits should rely on an "opt in" choice for the use of their data. They need to treat data "donation" the same way they protect financial ones. By allowing donors an "opt in" choice, nonprofits will get better, more useful data and maintain public trust.
However, when it comes to enterprise level data, the default should be to share all the data you can. This is the second change that needs to happen. With regard to outcomes data or project insights, the default should be an "opt out" choice. Most of the information that organizations collect on their work never gets shared outside of their own staff meetings. Not because it's proprietary or scandalous, but because that's the way it was done in the pre-Internet, publish-it-once world. Nonprofits don't live in that world anymore, none of us do. If we're going to scale any of our efforts to solve social problems we've got to make much better use of the fastest scaling tool humans have ever built: open data.
Shifting these two defaults will help nonprofits become trusted and purposeful users of data. Have you seen other examples of nonprofits using open data for social impact? What made those examples work?"