Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Shining lights on generosity

You know the old trope about how people looking on the ground around a streetlamp for their lost keys, even if they lost them down the block, simply because "that's where the light is?"
 (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/The_Man_Under_the_Street_Light)

This is a little like how I've been thinking about generosity. We associate generosity - especially in the U.S. - with charitable giving to nonprofits. Everything else - volunteering time, giving to politics, direct gifts to neighbors or friends or others, mutual aid, remittances, shopping your values, investing your values - those things are all something else.

And, yes, the motivational and behavioral mix for these actions may be different. But we make a mistake when we center the one - charitable giving - and shift everything else to the edge and think that's based in human behavior. It's actually based in politics and industry.

In the U.S we've built an infrastructure of organizations (nonprofits) that take up a lot of space in the generosity mix. And we make them register with the government which allows us to count them. And we require them to report certain actions which then allows us to  track giving to them. Those decisions were political - and have to do with values like accountability and association and expression.

On top of those registries and reports we've built big systems and organizations to make sense of the information. Some of those institutions (Foundation Center) were built as an industry response to possible regulation. Some of those institutions (Guidestar) were built because there was a huge data set of nonprofit tax forms that existed by the 1990s. These data sets served as the "lights" that helped us "see" specific behaviors. It wasn't that other behaviors weren't happening, it's just that there weren't lights shining on them.

(https://www.videoblocks.com/video/seamless-looping-animation-of-classic-wooden-house-with-lights-in-a-beautiful-wintry-landscape-at-night-4dty2hnoxijrh8vsk)

Shining a light on these behaviors was done to better understand this one type of generous act - it wasn't done with the intention of judging the others as lesser. But over time, all the light has focused on charitable giving to nonprofits making it seem like the other behaviors weren't happening or were less important, just because the light was not shining there.

The more the full mix of behaviors happens on digital platforms, the more lights get turned on. Where it is hard to track a gift of cash to a neighbor in need, crowdfunding platforms that facilitate such exchanges (and credit card trails) bring light onto those actions. And because more and more acts take place on digital platforms - Facebook claims to have moved $1 Billion in last year - we can now see them better. The digital trails are like shining new lights on old behaviors.

Think of it like a house of generosity. In one room are donations to charitable nonprofits. In the USA, the lights have been burning bright in this room for decades. In another room is contributions to houses of worship. Down the hall is the room of money to neighbors/friends in need. Another room is where shopping for some products and not others happens. Downstairs is investing in line with your values. There's a room for political funding and and one for spending time rallying around a cause. Other rooms hold remittances or cooperative funds or mutual aid pools. As each of these behaviors shifts to use digital platforms - be it online portals, social media, texting, or even just credit card payments - its like turning on the light in those rooms. We can "see" the behaviors better, not because they're new but because the digital trails they create are now visible - the light is shining in all those
rooms.
(https://www.123rf.com/photo_27996382_big-modern-house-with-bright-lights-on-in-windows-on-a-beautitul-summer-evening.html)

Digital trails shine lights on lots of different behaviors. We can see things we coudn't see before. It's going to be increasingly important that we have public access to data on what's going in the whole house, not just certain rooms. Right now, the data on many of these behaviors is held in closed fashion by the platforms on which the transactions happen - crowdfunding platforms know what happens on them, Facebook tells us what happens there, and so on. We're dependent on the holder of the light to shine it into certain rooms. This isn't in in the public's interest. Having the lights turned on is better than being in the dark, but having public access to the light switches is what really matters.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

First question...

I've been talking to a lot of nonprofit and foundation folks + software developers lately. The good news is these two communities are starting to work together - from the beginning. But there is a long way to go. Just because you're working in or with a nonprofit/social sector/civil society organization doesn't mean unleashing the most sophisticated software/data analytic techniques is a good thing. In fact, using cutting edge algorithmic or analytic techniques that haven't been tried before in an effort to help already vulnerable people is quite possibly a really bad idea.

I've come to believe that the first question that these teams of well meaning people should ask about whatever it is they're about to build is:
"How will this thing be used against its intended purpose?"
How will it be broken, hacked, manipulated, used to derail the good intention it was designed for? If the software is being designed to keep some people safe, how will those trying to do harm use it? If it's intended to protect privacy, how will it be used to expose or train attention in another dangerous way?

Think about it this way - every vulnerable community is vulnerable because some other set of communities and structures is making them that way. Your software probably doesn't (can't) address those oppressive or exploitative actors motives or resources. So when you deploy it it will be used in the continuing context of intentional or secondary harms.

If you can't figure out the ecosystem of safety belts and air bags, traffic rules, insurance companies, drivers' education, and regulatory systems that need to help make sure that whatever you build does more help than harm, ask yourself - are we ready for this? Because things will go wrong. And the best tool in the wrong hands makes things worse, not better.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Liabilities and line items

A lot of work on responsible data practices in nonprofits has focused on staff skills to manage digital resources. This is great. Progress is being made.

Digital resources (data and infrastructure) are core parts of organizational capacity. We need to help board members understand and govern these resources in line with mission and in safe, ethical and responsible ways.

Digital data and infrastructure need to become part of the regular purview of boards in thinking about liabilities and line items.
  • Ongoing budgeting for staff (and board) training on responsible data governance 
  • Making sure practices are in place - and insurance purchased when practices fail - to protect the people the organization serves when something goes wrong 
  • Understanding the security and privacy implications of communicating digitally with volunteer board members
  • Horizon scanning on ethical digital practice and opportunities
Digital data governance is as much a part of running an effective organization as are financial controls and good human resource practices. We need to help board members lead.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Your tech vendors are your landlords


https://www.eff.org/wp/clicks-bind-ways-users-agree-online-terms-service

No one reads the Terms of Service. Few of us understand who has access to the data we generate all day every day. Rachel Maddow and others continue to refer to Cambridge Analytica/Facebook as the former "stealing" data from the latter, when actually, the latter's business model depended on the former doing what it did.

Our (us as people and civil society) relationship with the companies that make our phones, sell us internet access and data plans, "give" us apps, social media feeds and "free" cloud storage is a mess. Part of it the problem is the metaphors. So here's a new one. Don't think of the software, internet, cloud, app, hardware companies whose products you use as vendors, think of them as landlords.

Then think about how you read your lease. How you ask for better terms and negotiate for buildouts or rebates. And how, if they told you they'd be coming in and rummaging around in your file cabinets at any time of day or night, taking what they wanted, claiming it as their own, using it to sell to other renters, and even selling it - you'd run.

People are beginning to recognize the creepy landlord relationship they have with their tech vendors. Nonprofit organizations and foundations who depend on Facebook and/or its APIs, Salesforce and its Philanthropy Cloud, Google docs or hangouts - they're your landlord. You're running your programs and operations in their space. By their rules. You wouldn't stand for it in physical space - why do so in digital space?