We the people who are the data

The instructions "do not fold, spindle or mutilate" used to accompany IBM punch cards, a ubiquitous technology for capturing and storing data for computational purposes up until the late 1980s.

As colleges and universities began to computerize their student records many people experienced feeling like they'd become just a number, just some data in a big machine. Of course, many people - whole demographic groups - had long been familiar with this phenomenon. Some of our worst moments in history include government/business alliances that used "data on people" for a variety of harmful reasons. A single century provides examples from the passbook requirements for Blacks in apartheid South Africa, to the stars on Jews in Nazi Germany, internment camps for Japanese Americans in World War Two, and government files on American citizens during the McCarthy era and the civil rights movement.
Data on people can be used for good (improving health care, educational opportunities, tracking environmental refugees, enfranchisement, targeted advertising) or evil (discrimination, elimination, disenfranchisement, targeted advertising).

The Free Speech movement of the 1960s co-opted the instructions to "not fold, spindle or mutilate" to apply to the humans captured in the data, not just the punch cards.


Nowadays, we are (or should be) aware that both businesses and governments are collecting data on us in ways so pervasive and passive as to make punch cards seem quaint. We also know that we have been complicit in making our data available freely - often in exchange for search functionality, social media connections, retail discounts, or two day free shipping.

Given this knowledge, people who are preparing to work with data - in any capacity - need to think about the ethics of what they're doing. This last week saw the rise of the NeverTech manifesto - in which tech company employees from across the spectrum vowed not to help build Donald Trump's muslim registry (#NeverAgain.Tech) Other tech executives are signing on to commitments to civil liberties. These statements are important, but, really, they are more of a floor than an aspirational ceiling. Refusing to participate in building tools to facilitate discrimination that defy the very principles of religious liberty on which the U.S. was founded 200+ years ago hardly lives up to technologists' self-image of disruptive, risk-taking, future creators.

The generation of digital tools on which we now depend - social media, search, mobile - as long as they continue to destroy our ability to speak freely, to assemble peacably, and to learn, think and act privately are neither innovative nor groundbreaking. They are lazy first generation solutions, avoiding the tough issues of personal agency, liberty, privacy, and civil rights.


We the people who are the digital data, who are excited about its possibilities, and who are dedicated to taking advantage of it must be the ones to dismantle liberty-destroying pervasive surveilled networks and unaccountable third-party landgrabs over our digital selves. We must be the ones to fight for encryption as a fundamental bulwark of civil society, to take on the difficult engineering tasks that encode and protect personal privacy in pursuit of public benefit, and to invent digital systems that align with and extend humanity's highest aspirations for life and liberty.  

We need bold action now to make the digital realm align with the principles of justice, freedom, individual action and collective good that centuries of humans have fought to codify in our most principled democracies. To give up on the former is to destroy the latter.

To defer to decades-old business models, special-interest influenced governance protocols, or difficult engineering challenges is to default on the opportunities we face, to walk away from enticing computing challenges and disruptive possibility, and to choose business as usual. Focusing our best minds and our creative capital on digital tools that destroy civil liberties and threaten employment opportunities while ignoring those that would conserve our natural resources and enhance human dignity, will be to hasten our demise as free, peaceful people.

All of us - creators and users of digital tools - need to get out from behind our willful blindness and acknowledge that How We Use Digital Data is as important as what we do with it. Our digital lives depend on the ethical choices we bring to - and that we demand of - the digital spaces that are substructural to our daily actions. We must now take to the streets, to the classrooms, to our open plan workspaces, to our lawmakers, and to the board rooms to protect our digital rights and enhance our humanity.
  • People need to protect themselves and demand protections in the products they use and from the companies they purchase from
  • We need to insist on government action that aligns with the founding principles of democracy and doesn't toss them aside in favor of cowardly falsehoods about national security or economic competition
  • Organizations and individuals need to use their market power to demand digital products that they can use without compromising their social missions
  • Tech companies, hardware/software makers, telecommunication firms, and app designers need to lead and be rewarded for person-protecting consent, privacy, and security practices, transparency and auditability.
  • Business people need to stop resting on incumbent explotaitive revenue models. Now is the chance for true innovators to demonstrate an ability to produce economic value in line with human and democratic values  
We, and only we, can can lead us into an era in which our human, civil and democratic rights are protected in digital spaces by design and by default.

What are digital data?

This is a metaphysical question but one that may help you think about using digital data safely, ethically, and effectively at your organization. I've been mulling over this question for awhile and it seems there are many ways to conceive of the value and role of digital data to you and your organization:

  • As resources, like time or money
  • As assets (and liabilities)
  • As relationships
  • As a context or place
  • As a lifecycle
  • As a multiplier or expansion strategy
  • As ones and zeros, a binary language of representation 
  • ?
I'm bingeing again on the Raw Data podcast (Season 2!) and several of the episodes - plus the reflection on season one - make it clear that there are lots of ways to think about digital data.

Different people think about digital data in different ways. Someone involved in fundraising may see the digital data held in the organization's CRM system as evidence of the relationships they manage. The IT staff may see digital data as a cycle of responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Communications experts may think of online as a place or a context. Program staff may wonder how data can be used for greater reach or deeper insights. (I'm not sure how these different roles line up or not with these different mental maps - might be an interesting thing to ask your colleagues)

How you think about digital data (and how your colleagues do) can inform who needs to do what when you're thinking about your foundation's or nonprofit's data management and governance responsibilities.

This year's Blueprint includes several worksheets you can adapt to your organizational needs - to think about what data you have, what skills you need, and how data can help, or hinder, your pursuit of mission. Check out the worksheets here.

And let me know - how do you think of digital data?

#Blueprint17 is live


Download it for free here

Nonprofits, foundations, and the next U.S. President

(Photo: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/11/digital-security-tips-for-protesters)

The U.S. nonprofit sector often thinks of itself as being independent from government and markets. This self-image is held widely enough that one of the major  trade organizations even calls itself Independent Sector. But independence in the digital age is...well...complicated. Almost all of the infrastructure used to transmit digital data is owned and monitored by the government and/or commercial firms that sell internet access, cloud storage, cell phones and mobile data plans, or that provide search functionality or social media by selling your data to advertisers, or that do all of the above. So if you're communicating key messages via social media, storing your donor and beneficiary files online, and using commercial software to send text alerts or work collaboratively on your program evaluations, just how independent are you, really?

Since the Presidential election on November 8, there have been a few impressive actions that recognize the independence of nonprofits and foundations on digital systems owned and monitored by the government and/or commercial firms.
I've written two previous posts on the threats to free assembly, expression, and privacy on which the President-elect campaigned, why we should believe those campaign statements, and what to do in the reality they represent.

Even inlcuding the actions in the above bulleted list, I've been underwhelmed by the philanthropic and nonprofit community's response to our dependent digital state. With a few exceptions, most foundations and nonprofits - even those expressing real concern about their issues - are going about their business as if nothing fundamental has changed. They don't seem to get just how "un-independent" they long ago became and what that dependence means now and for the next few (?) years.

Nonprofits and foundations work on a lot of issues. Many will tell you they work on behalf of vulnerable people - children, the elderly, the sick, the poor. Others cherish and work on behalf of  people specifically targeted specifically by the President-elect's campaign and its supporters, such as immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, and women. The digital data that these organizations use every day - emails, funding information, text messages for outreach, photos, videos, web sites, program data, beneficiary information - is the lifeblood of their work. And every bit of it may be of interest to a government intent on "radical change" - which includes building registries, deporting people, "law and order," and building walls.

If your nonprofit or foundation works with or for vulnerable people, you should not make them more vulnerable. This was true on November 7. It's more true now. The incoming administration touts its plans to register Muslims. It banned selected reporters throughout the campaign. "Long memories" about political adversaries are proudly brought up by advisors to the administration. These are not normal actions or statements, and they don't bode well for the idea of either an independent press or an independent nonprofit sector.•

Your organizational ability to manage digital data safely, ethically, and effectively is not an optional concern. It is a core operational and governance capacity. You cannot be an effective nonprofit or foundation unless you are attending to your digital assets with the same integrity, alignment to mission, and dedicated expertise that you depend on your lawyers, accountants, and financial advisors to provide regarding your human resources and financial systems.

This isn't just about the effectiveness of your organization (though that's a fine place to start). It's about the independence of, the nature and role of, and the future of independent organizations and independent civil society. Such a sector is based on the real practice of free assembly, expression and privacy, not just a presumption of their conceptual existence. That practice begins with you and your organization. You may not be able to create a copy of yourself in Canada. But the question remains...what are you going to do?



*I'm not even going to go down the rabbit hole of the non-independence of the president-elect's own foundation, its acknowledged breaking of basic charitable laws, and the repeated ways in which it was used as a mere piggy bank for a range of political, personal, and business-related actions. If you want my thoughts on that hot mess, see #blueprint17 - coming December 14 at grantcraft.org/blueprint17