Ethics, data, mission and revenue

I just finished a three part series on digital values and civil society. We'll have to call this post part 3.5.

As I did so, I was (slightly) relieved to see that the Chronicle of Philanthropy raised an ethical eyebrow at the growing practice of nonprofits' selling data and digital data rights in their link to this story from The Philadelphia Inquirer.*

This is a great example of the ethical conundrums facing nonprofits in the digital age. Gather and sell people's data? Nothing new in that business model - it's been working ridiculously well for social media giants and search companies for more than a decade now (works great for data brokers also).

  • Why should or shouldn't nonprofits sell data from those they work with? 
  • When should they do it? 
  • Under what conditions? 
  • Is there any nonprofit/mission-driven special privilege or pass or encouragement we want to endorse where this practice is involved? 
  • If there are special conditions for nonprofits or mission-based businesses what are they and who's going to monitor adherence to those conditions? 
  • And if there are not special conditions for nonprofit enterprises regarding their use of this resource, why are they nonprofits?
Please consider how the logic behind your answer regarding data for pharmaceutical research (as examined in the story) extend (or not) to other types of data, because it's more than physiological information that gets shared, it's also demographic, geographic, and other identifying information.

Some data may have real public value. Since many of us gladly (unknowingly? with reservations?) exchange our data for free 2-day shipping, the exchange of data for life-saving medical breakthrough may well be worth it? How can we value these exchanges? Make them more visible? And what spectrum of rights might we want regarding how we protect and how we share our data and for what purposes?

Got an answer to these questions for your nonprofit or your foundation? Great. If so, you are way ahead of the rest of the sector, which is still writing ethical codes that ignore the value and challenges of digital data.

*In the same issue the Chronicle is running an ongoing series of "he said, she saids" about "tech for good." It's not about how many drones, how many 3D printers, or who uses bitcoin - it's about purpose, respect, accountability, and with what limits and rights we pursue digital opportunities to achieve our missions. But at least the Chronicle stories engage different viewpoints about digital - instead of acting like it's not there.

Values Aligned Technology

I've been thinking a lot about values, society, and technological design. I'm trying to articulate what, when, and how the values that shape civil society should be expressed with and within technology. What I do know is that it's not just at the point of use. We need tools that default to the values we care about, not just those that serve the company that built the tool or the government that regulates its use. We can't continue to duct-tape our tech tools into our social sector work or political protest.

So far, most of what I've read about this, and the thinking I participated in at the Ethics of Data Conference, talks about ethical decision making across the data lifecycle. This is an important start. But it doesn't seem to start early enough in the tech/data development process. The values of the end user and the end uses need to be designed into the tools from the beginning.


Think about this. In civil society, for example, voluntary participation is not just a key value, it's a defining premise of the sector. In the tech world, the idea of voluntary participation translates into "opting in" (or more often, "opting out") This is usually managed through a deliberately opaque "consent process," which really doesn't describe what's happening if you are barred from the service if you don't sign on. That's not voluntary or consent-driven engagement, that's force.

Civil society should be thinking about processes and using tools that require informed consent and provide the informing. Active consent. What I recently called "Gung ho consent, with an opportunity to stop consenting at any point." As data collection becomes part of everything we use ethicists are already thinking "beyond consent."  As new technological infrastructures like the blockchain come along, there's a pressing opportunity to consider the values that shape them and how civil society can shape their use. And if an individual doesn't want to consent to your data collection processes, do you really want to cut him or her off from your food bank, homeless shelter, museum exhibit or vaccination? In the interest of the greater good, do we really want access to core services to depend on someone's consent to an organization's data processes? That's not what I call voluntary.

When it comes to new technologies or applications of technologies we don't need to go through the pendulum swing of "exuberant hype, omnipresent use, creeping doubt" that has become familiar courtesy of search engine data collection, social media data exhaust, peer to peer car sharing "God views," and wearables that creep us out. There are other approaches.

One way to think about this is to think of tech and data design like we think of electoral district boundary setting. It may not seem as sexy as running for office, but boy does it matter. Gerrymander the district lines and you exert a lot of control over who runs and who wins. Over time and across place how these lines are drawn can come to matter at the macro level - such as the makeup of the US House of Representatives - a body which can ultimately have global influence. All because of how the lines were drawn.

Design defaults in hardware and software are as value-laden as district boundaries. What stays in, what gets collected, what gets stored and where - these decisions nudge our behaviors, at the individual level and at the macro level.

It may seem tough to align our values with the design principles that shape our technologies, but it can be done - on both the supply side and the demand side. The Responsible Data Forum is one example of a "supply-side" approach to tools like this - designing tools with and for communities of activists so that the technological defaults are those of the communities. On the demand side - we as individuals (consumers) - also have power. As Dan Gillmor, a noted tech journalist says, when he chooses tools he wants to put his faith in the values of a community not in a company. If all of civil society thought this way it would dramatically shift the power dynamic between the user of a tech device, the person whose data is being stored in/captured by the device, the device itself, and the designers of the code and hardware. Users would understand what the devices were doing, the device would default to users' choices, and the world of choice in devices would expand.

Bringing these values to bear in the design and development of data processes or new tech tools isn't easy. I was inspired (somewhat ironically) by an observation about how the role of industrial design has changed tech innovation, courtesy of Jony Ive at Apple. In a 2015 New Yorker profile of the company's lead designer, Ian Barker writes:
"Typically, Robert Brunner explained, design had been “a vertical stripe in the chain of events” in a product’s delivery; at Apple, it became “a long horizontal stripe, where design is part of every conversation.”
This is how we need to think about societal values and technology devices. Something that is considered throughout the technology creation process. Not the values of the device makers but the values of the end users and the sector in which the tools will be used. That would lead to technology that serves us, not situations where we need to jury-rig the tools for our ends. Values aligned technology - something to aspire to, especially as digital sensors and networked connectivity become part and parcel of everything.

This is part three of three in a series on digital values and civil society. Part one is here and part two is here.

Data privacy standards - another missed opportunity for civil society

Here we go again. A small group of #nonprofits will engage in the policy battle about data privacy. The rest of nonprofit sector and philanthropy will stand by, ignoring it. Thinking "consumer data privacy standards" - not our issue.

Yes, It is our issue. Replace the word "consumer" with the word "individual." Now, does it sound relevant? Digital data privacy matters to nonprofits and foundations.  Digital isn't optional, it's integral. Data management (including privacy) is the equivalent of fiduciary responsibility.

Managing, protecting, securing, destroying and respecting digital data is the key organizational capacity issue for nonprofits and foundations today. You have data from and about your beneficiaries, your donors, your staff, you.

How nonprofits manage data matters. Handling it well could (and should) lead to long term retention of trust and integrity in the sector. Standing by and waiting for Comcast, Target, Home Depot, Sony, your health insurance company, JP Morgan, (and every other major corporate or government agency that's recently been hacked) along with Axciom and the other 3999 commercial data brokers to come up with a bill won't help civil society. Standing by doesn't help you as an individual (the proverbial "consumer"), it doesn't help your nonprofit or foundation think through these issues as they matter to you, and it doesn't help the sector.

The sector as a whole is missing an opportunity to stand up for the rights of individuals and to stand up and differentiate nonprofit corporations and their respect for data privacy from their commercial competitors.  On the issue of people and their digital data why aren't nonprofits and foundation standing up saying "We Will Do this Right?" Here's what I wish nonprofits and foundations were saying right now:

"Since we're not in the data collection business to make a buck, and because we do collect (a lot) of data on you, this is how we handle it, this is how we use it toward our mission,  these are your rights to get it back from us, and here's proof of our data integrity."
What a moment to declare the integrity of the sector and collectively stand for trustworthy, mission-driven, transparent and understandable, respectful approaches to using personal data for public good.

Oh, the depressing sound of silence.

This is part two of a three-part series on digital values and civil society.  Part one is here. Part three will appear on Wednesday March 3, 2015.
*Thank you to those nonprofits that are engaged on these issues including the Center for Digital Democracy, Georgetown's Center on Privacy and Technology,

Digital isn't optional and it isn't "other"

Digital infrastructure and the nature of digital assets have been transformative. Business gets this - companies traffic in data, are valued in the marketplace by their ability to collect and manage digital data, products are designed around data, entire companies shift their focus from computers to music to telecommunications to wearables to automobiles (I'm looking at you, Apple). Business schools can't promote digital innovation headily enough. If the biggest topic in US healthcare a few years ago was the Affordable Care Act it's rapidly switching to use of your personal health data.

Governments get it and are opening their data stores, sometimes for good and sometimes to obfuscate and confuse. What data we want our government to collect on us in the name of security - and where and how they get it - has dominated news cycles and Administration edicts since the middle of 2013. Net neutrality is (literally) the policy issue of the day - and represents a major grassroots, civil society policy win.* Broadband access is gaining policy attention, and keep your eyes out as our attention shifts to Zero Rating as the next big threat to free speech and association.

You'd never know any of the above from looking at the philanthropy and nonprofit news or associational agendas. For example:

Independent Sector has released it's new guidelines for good practice and ethical principles for the social sector. There are important updates in here from the last version, especially raising data security to the level of governance responsibility that it deserves. But "secure your servers" is pretty much the extent to which these guidelines acknowledge the digital underpinnings of today's civil society.

Grantcraft has a new guidebook out on capacity building. It offers great guidance for funding institutions, but there's nothing in it that I found that wouldn't have applied to funder/nonprofit relationships in 1994 (pre-World Wide Web and mobile phones). Is that because nonprofits' digital capacity is so robust or because it's unimportant? Or not understood or undervalued?
Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has a new updated guide on capacity building also. A search for "digital" in the pdf file yields no results. 
Philanthropy and civil society need to step up to our digital reality.

Digital is not optional. This is not about whether or not you have a Snapchat account or live-tweet your board meetings.
  • If your organization uses a printer or a copy machine your information is digitized and subject to third party review. You are a digital enterprise.
  • Does your organization file a 990 or 990-PF?  Even if you filled it out in pencil and hand-delivered it to the IRS, you do know that information gets OCR'd, digitized, and uploaded to the net, don't you? Congratulations - you are a digital enterprise. 
  • Do you work on housing, education, healthcare, environmental conservation, social justice, biodiversity, economic or community development, urban planning, civic engagement, transportation, the arts and culture, human rights, religious tolerance, or any other issue? If so, then digital data and infrastructure are shaping your strategy choices, your potential partners, and any chance you have of achieving your mission. Yours is a digital mission.
Nonprofits and foundations today are digital enterprises, operating in a digital world.
  • They need to understand how digital assets, resources, and infrastructure work - (hint: it's not the way financial assets do) - in advancement of their missions and in opposition to them. 
  • They need to understand that not all digital tools fit the jobs of their organizations - some devices are designed to operate in ways that directly conflict with their organization's mission. 
  • They need to understand that everyone they interact with may be a donor to their organization - a data donor. And all that data demands respect and protection.
  • They need to figure out if their work is creating new digital resources with public benefit, and factor that in to the social calculus of what they do.
  • They need to understand the emerging landscape of digital social enterprises, as well as the changing landscape of digital data sources that matter to their work and the subsectors of digital intermediaries - especially in the area of capacity building. 
  • They need to consider the civil liberties and civil rights aspects of big data use in the issue areas in which they fund, as well as smarten up fast about their own data collection, storage and use practices.
Digital data and infrastructure are recognized all around us as core mechanisms for public discourse, fundamental elements of public utility, instrumental to civil rights, information access, medical care, innovation, education, and countless other dimensions of modern life.

Digital asset management and governance is the KEY capacity building issue for nonprofits and foundations in the 21st century.

Digital asset management and governance policies are as integral to ethical and effective enterprises as Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws, as conflict of interest policies and respect for donor intent.

Using digital resources for mission-based or community-based purposes is as central to the idea of civil society as structuring financial resources toward public benefit, via the corporate entity known as a nonprofit.

Digital isn't optional, it's integral.

This is part one of a three-part series on digital values and civil society.  Part two is here. Part three will appear on Wednesday March 3, 2015.

*Look at this list of actors - and think about who is not here. Policies such as net neutrality underpin the very existence of nonprofits and foundations but you'd never know it from the niche nature of those who fought for it. Their efforts matter to all nonprofits' existence - these issues are not niche.

Net Neutrality Congratulations and Thanks

"The Internet is the ultimate vehicle for free expression."
                               Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman, February 26, 2015
Congratulations and thank you to the civil society actors who acted to help protect an open internet.

Berkman Center
Center for Democracy and Technology
Common Cause
CREDO Action
Daily Kos
Demand Progress
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Free Press
Fight for the Future
Ford Foundation
Internet Archive
Knight Foundation
MacArthur Foundation
Media Action Grassroots Network
Mozilla Foundation
National Hispanic Media Coalition
OpenTechnology Institute
Open Society Foundation
Progressive Change Campaign Committee
Public Knowledge
Stanford Center on Internet and Society
Marvin Ammori
Jennifer Granick
Tim Wu
Barbara Van Schewick
and many, many others.

This a key marker of Digital Civil Society. It counts as a victory both for and of the space. The organizations above, most of which are nonprofits, and the hundreds of thousands of people (millions?) who mobilized through these organizations, with these organizations, or simply in proximity to these organizations came together to protect the right to association and expression on equal terms in digital environments. They formulated, organized for, petitioned and persisted in enacting public policy that protects our right to come together and be heard with digital tools and on digital infrastructure. [Here's a new report on how it happened] An effect of the FCC ruling to govern the internet and wireless devices under Title II will be continued fair access to digital space for civic association and expression.

It is also a marker of the arrival of an effective, distributed, diverse set of civil society actors built from and dedicated to a digital environment. The actions that made this policy happen are truly "of" the digital age - they are informed by it, shaped by it, and committed to it.

Essentially, with this victory civil society made its own continued existence possible.

This is not the first time (nor will it be the last) that civil society has preserved it's own potential. The history of public spaces and parks, of the First Amendment, of libraries and information access, of rural telephony - these histories precede today's accomplishment. And the accomplishment is more important because of those roots. It is truly an extension of longstanding, core values of democracy into the digital environment and not the compromise of those values by technological complexity or corporate preemption.