It's the data, stupid (note to self)

Last Friday I was part of the International Data Responsibility Group's second conference where I heard incredible examples of how the World Food Programme is using data to guide its work feeding people in conflict zones and thought long and hard about data collaboratives and the possibility of data philanthropy.

On Saturday I read about the ways Russia is targeting attacks on human rights and aid-related NGOs' digital systems in Syria.

On Monday, I participated in an incredible seminar on crowdsourcing and public decision making, partly organized around Beth Noveck's book - Smart Citizens, Smarter State.

On Wednesday, I heard Kevin Carey discuss his book, The End of College, which looks at the economic opportunities that digital tools bring to higher education. It only hints at how the digital data generated in those environments will become a key resource and point of contention between schools, students, employers, regulators, researchers, and teachers.

Today, I pushed forward in my attempts to convene scholars of crowd (sourcing and funding) - or what we're calling CrowdX - from across the Stanford campus, in disciplines as diverse as civil engineering and business, social algorithms and democracy theory.

I also read that the charges that Airbnb "cooked its data books" in releasing information to New York regulators hold up.  It took intrepid journalists to demonstrate this to the public and to regulators - and to get the company to fess up.

And, of course, like many people I am absorbed in the legal, ethical, and democratic arguments unfolding between the FBI and Apple.

All of these disparate events raise concerns about privacy, publicness, and data. But the one issue that I think they all raise - that has actionable, policy-related implications for philanthropy and civil society - is this:

  1. What data must be made public (and auditable) by platforms that facilitate public services (transportation, shelter, funding charitable or public goods)?
We require public businesses, nonprofits and foundations to report on their activities. This information provides some form of accountability, is helpful in fighting fraud, and - in the aggregate - provides a critical lens into the state of our economy, our social sector, and our democracy.

So, what data do we need access to, as a public, to understand, oversee, and yes, audit, platform companies that facilitate transactions that meet the same criteria of public interest. They may be charitable in nature, public good supporting, or mutual aid related.

Setting the bar at its lowest - shouldn't we at least have access to the same information from these platforms that we would gather were the transactions happening in some other way? Why would the platforms - even as proprietary as they are - be given a pass on reporting data on transactions that we'd otherwise publicly report? And, given their own self-touted role in a "big data" economy, setting the bar that low seems, well, practically analog and 20th century.

We're working on this question.  We don't yet have answers (although here are some ideas).  We do know the answer is not "nothing, trust us." And we do know that the getting the answer right matters to - and depends on - the active participation of existing institutions in civil society and philanthropy.

Let the lawsuits begin


We launched digitalIMPACT.io on Tuesday at the Data on Purpose conference. It was great.

One of the conversations I had during the event was initiated by someone asking me the question, "When will the lawsuits begin?"

The point was that organizations won't change until they really have to, so nonprofits won't start really digging into data governance practices and policies (what digitalIMPACT.io provides) until they're  legally required to do so. Lawsuits that lead to regulatory or legislative change, this person was suggesting, are a step toward the same type of organizational behavior change we're trying to support with digitalIMPACT.

History bears out this "theory of change."

Bad behavior, lawsuit, lawsuit, lawsuit, regulatory change is a plot line (or subplot) through a great deal of social and political history. Environmental protection. Civil rights. Gun laws. Campaign funding. And, yes, the protection of civil liberties online.

Tonight, I was catching up on email and half-watching the news when I heard this sentence from the professionally-alarmed local newscaster:
"Big news for parents. Your child's private data is likely on its way to a nonprofit advocacy group."
Needless to say, I gave the TV my undivided attention.

A nonprofit that advocates for special education has sued California school districts as part of their efforts to make sure kids are getting appropriate services. The school districts are (allegedly) sending electronic files of all students with names, addresses, and social security numbers to the organization. The news story went on to describe the privacy risks for children's data and point viewers (parents) to an opt-out process.

How long will it be until there is a countersuit?

Now we have an answer to Tuesday's questions. Lawsuits between nonprofits and public agencies about data have begun. Give it a minute and it will be the nonprofits getting sued. (Of course, lawsuits over digital data started years ago, at least as early as 1990, when EFF was founded).

Legal challenges for regulatory change are a tried and true means of changing policy. They are not the only way. There are things nonprofits and foundations can do to treat digital data with integrity and respect, and perhaps avoid litigation.  Check out digitalIMPACT.io.




Ranking Digital Rights

The Ranking Digital Rights initiative is important. Take a look.

Like the Electronic Frontier Foundation's "Who has your back report" these efforts analyze, report on, and rank the privacy-respecting practices of corporations and online companies.

So, what about civil society?

The Foundation Center's Glasspockets effort tracks voluntary transparency practices of foundations.

But we have no  standards and no accountability for how nonprofits and foundations collect, use, and protect our personal data - whether we are acting as donors, beneficiaries, volunteers, or fee-paying customers. When I interact with a nonprofit I do so as a private person, giving my money and my time (and increasingly my data, such as a phone number, email address, and credit card number) to them to accomplish some public-facing purpose. My trust in that organization is key - to use my money, time and data wisely and in line with their mission.

The Digital Civil Society Lab and Markets For Good Initiative at Stanford is working with several partners to run the digitalIMPACT.io project to help nonprofits and foundations think about these practices. But - we the people - will have to be the ones to set the standards by which we can trust these organizations and hold them accountable.

Raw Data - the podcast

Podcasts are in again. I know you know that.



I was recently asked by the amazing folks at Worldview Stanford, who have included me in some of their regular campus programming, to do an interview for their new podcast. So first I wanted to listen to what they were up to. I missed my bus stop I was so tuned in.

In partnership with the Cyber Initiative at Stanford the Worldview folks have put together a great series (Raw Data) on how digital data are reshaping our lives. The Uploaded episode does a better job of explaining the power of metadata than any news story I've read. I wish I'd heard the episode on "crowd work" before sending Blueprint 2016 to press. The story on bitcoin made the slightly-less-near term changes that digital data and infrastructure may have on global finance accessible, compelling, and real.

I listened to the episode on digital data and voting the day after the Iowa caucuses. I should mention I also binge watched Scandal, seasons 1- whatever. Let me put it this way - Shonda Rhimes' plotline on rigged elections was pretty darn scary in its plausibility, and its got nothing on what Mike Osborne and Leslie Chang (hosts of Raw Data) interrogate in their episode, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Data."

Each episode weaves a story from research. This is not simply a good Malcolm Gladwell article told on the air. The hosts interview scholars from multiple disciplines, visit companies, and speak with policymakers in such a way that you don't realize you've just had your mind blown by researchers in economics, law, engineering and psychology - you're just listening to a really good story. And learning a lot.

What other podcasts are you listening to?