Civil Society and Big Data

The Dallas Museum has been overt in declaring the value of the data it collects from museum-goers - it exchanges membership for data. Most nonprofits are collecting data from their donors, the people they serve, people who attend their programs or sign up for information - but aren't acknowledging directly the value of that information to them.

All nonprofits are gathering information on us - but what are they doing with it?  

How do nonprofits collect, use, store, share, and retain data on the people with whom they interact? What information do they gather, what do they do with it, and what protections should they afford to the folks from whom they get this information? What, if anything, do we expect from nonprofits regarding their use of our data that might be different from what we expect from a commercial enterprise or government agency?

Here's one thought. America's charitable and philanthropic sector today is heavily shaped by a concept of donor intent. This has roots going back to 19th Century trust law and the development of the modern corporation (for profit and nonprofit). It focuses on the intent of the donor of financial resources. It shapes the activities of foundations after donors' die, the use of gifts by large and small nonprofits, and the entire multibillion sub-industry of donor advised funds.

What about data donor intent? The donors of data include all of us - financial supporters, program users, members, clients, users of the Facebook like button, retweeters of nonprofit tweets, and one-off visitors to many nonprofit websites.

I'm happy to to see that the White House, in partnership with several civil society organizations, including major universities, think tanks and advocacy organizations is hosting some public conversations on data and data privacy.

But what amazes me is that the agenda - even as the nonprofits host the discussion and have their leaders speak on the panels - neglects to consider the direct implications for civil society of our networked data age.

Are we to assume that government and business will be "upended," "revolutionized, " "disrupted" or some other exciting verb but nonprofits and civil society will remain unchanged? I don't think so. On the contrary, the implications of networked digital data for both addressing our shared social problems, and changing how we voluntarily act, how we associate with each other as independent citizens, how we organize for change or protest, are profound. Isn't it time for a real discussion of privacy, association, and autonomy - about civil society - in a networked data age?


HT to @kanter for bringing the OSTP/MIT conference to my attention.

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