Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Decoding the Future Part Two: Clouds and Networks

The plot so far:
Ed Skloot of the Duke University Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society and I and other colleagues are working on a project that considers if and how technology (specifically Internet and mobile enabled communications and social technologies) is changing philanthropy.

The project started with interviews, research, a paper and a wiki, rolls up to include discussions with invited experts and thoughtful challengers, continues to identify practical points for more experimentation and observation, and rolls out with your continued input and wisdom through this blog, in online conversation with key thinkers, and through as many other avenues as we can engage. One goal is to include as many insights as possible from the known gurus of technology and philanthropy and those whose expertise may seem further afield (legal underpinnings of the networked information economy; commons experts; engineering, design and production tinkerers; public space policy wonks and so on)

Draft 1.5 of the paper will be shared with readers who request it (email me, please, in early October (Thanks to all who've emailed so far, we're tracking and will send out all at once) We're also using this forum to try out some ideas and get your input - thanks to all who've strengthened the work so far.
The story continues:

So, here's where we left off.
  1. Data are the new platform for change.
  2. The changes are not about the digital technologies that allow access, or about the data themselves. They are about the expectations and behaviors they unleash.
  3. These changes, coupled with changes in the public and private sectors, are pushing a transition to a "social economy" made up of interdependent public, private and philanthropic capital and creators of social goods.
  4. All of these changes are not an end of a story, they are simply the beginning.
  5. Philanthropy is an industry of passion and volunteerism in which collusion should be encouraged. It may not change in the same way, at the same speed, or driven by the same forces as the newspaper or music industries or the public sector.
Part two, (this part), highlights two areas where I think data are serving as the platform for change, but they are not themselves the interesting part of the story. In other words - to build on bullet point number two above - the technologies change behavior and so do the data. The two areas to look at:
  • cloud technology and
  • peer to peer philanthropic networks.
What is cloud technology? Let me try to explain by providing some examples - Google docs, Yahoo mail, Flickr, Quicken Online, and Facebook causes. Cloud technology is when you are typing on a keypad but the software and the documents you are using are based "out there" -- in the clouds. They are not stored on your machine but remotely. You turn on, check in, use what you need, and log off. The applications you are using - word processing programs, photo storage and tagging, checkbook management, and social networking - are ready when you are, available from anywhere, and you only use what you need when you need it. Sound familiar? It should, it is how electricity works for most of us.*

So what? Well, there are two main reasons this kind of shift matters to philanthropy. First, donors and foundations and nonprofits tend not to be expert in managing software and hardware. One of the great promises of cloud computing is that individuals and organizations don't need to manage as much of that stuff as they do when all the data and applications are hosted on their own servers. Nick Carr's comparison is useful here - the difference between cloud computing and our current IT setup is the difference between switching on the lights for electricity from a central utility and every organization having to maintain their own power plant. There are significant concerns still about security of data in the cloud, and this post should not be read as an endorsement for any of the companies or services mentioned so far. That said, the shift to remote software use (that allows you to access anything from anywhere you happen to be, with your mobile phone, laptop, netbook, desktop, and soon, no doubt, your refrigerator) does matter.

Not only because it can save organizations a lot of money (though that will help and will drive the adoption of these tools) and allow them to allocate human resources differently. But because of the behavioral changes that cloud computing facilitates. When I can access my data from anywhere I can choose to share it with anyone else anywhere anytime also. And that allows us to work together, create new things together, improve them together, and share them with others.

What might we create that matters to philanthropy? How about a single shared session form for substance abuse counselors that stores the information they need to work with individual clients but that is also anonymized and aggregated instantly to produce quarterly and final reports to funders? Or a set of housing standards that different community development organizations can contribute to, use regularly in their daily work, and benchmark themselves against their peers? Or real-time disaster information texted in from proximal locations so that responders can track the path of hurricane damage? Or a national effort to change how states report nonprofit data, built entirely by volunteers and managed remotely with free software and free conference calling tools? Or insights from site visits that peer networks of donors can contribute to, add research links around, discuss, and use to guide their individual as well as collective grantmaking?

Those are all real examples, by the way. There are dozens - if not hundreds or thousands - more. (Should I begin building a list? Has anyone already started one? Where in the cloud will I find it?) And whatever examples we can find, we know they are only the beginning. As Holly Ross of NTEN notes, what the cloud really helps with is "sense-making in the new data-scape," or as Holly puts it:
"Making sense of all this data is going to be our key challenge as a sector as we move forward. But the cloud is going to help us in this regard, because the cloud makes it exponentially easier for us to move data around.

In the cloud, we can share client service data with other organizations and map it against the need demonstrated by census data. In the cloud, we can create visualizations of our data that make those multi-colored spreadsheets finally make REAL sense. In the cloud, we'll be able to record even more of the ways our constituents interact with us, and interpret what that means."

If you'd like to see Holly's slides on this subject, they are available on Slideshare (Cloud).

The second area of change is the rise of peer networks, of donors and do-ers. Sometimes these networks are separate - just donors or just activists - and sometimes they are one and the same. That in and of itself is a change from the past, where those who donate and those who do the work are publicly, consistently, and productively working together. Why is this happening? Lots of reasons, but for one the social network tools that each group uses don't filter the way conference organizers used to. As conference organizers open up panels and Q + A sessions to those not in attendance the conversations diversify and change.

More to the point, however, is the rise of these networks in general. Peer networks of donors, of program officers, of nonprofit ceos, of board members are all 1) easier to organize now because of technology, 2) more useful to their members because they can more easily share data and insights through the networks, and 3) changing how we think about expertise. Professionals who run foundations and nonprofits are used to accessing their peers in other organizations, and the tools to do so (conferences, listservs, affinity groups, funding collaboratives) have long been part of the infrastructure of their workplace.

What is new is the development of a similar infrastructure for the volunteers who fill the sector - especially donors, board members and activists. Technologies that connect people - by interest area and with robust access to shared data sources - are readily available. Just as environmental program officers in large foundations have a peer group of other environmental program officers at other foundations, environmentally focused donors are now connecting directly with their peers. Same thing with regionally-focused donors, or activists interested in public data access, individuals who share a diaspora experience or those committed to global giving. The Acumen Fund shows how a data-driven portfolio approach can be used to attract donors to new forms of investing; the Global Impact Investing Network's Investors Council, SeaChange Capital Partners, Growth Philanthropy Network, are all examples of new networks for donors and social investors.

We've seen the rapid growth of organizations such as Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors that provide shared staff to multiple donors. We've seen the rebirth - as its own entity - of The Philanthropy Workshop West, an independent network of donors and family foundations. And, of course, we've seen a decade of expansion from giving circles and Social Venture Partners.

These peer networks represent two things, one we can point to for sure and one we can speculate about. First, they show just how the market is rebundling financial products and knowledge products in philanthropy - the donors are doing it themselves. As peers find peers, and peer networks find data, the role of the professional changes. Staffing a single foundation may cease to make sense. Professional advisers will need new skills.

Second, these peer-supported, data-informed, passion-activated, and technology-enabled networks may just represent a whole new structural form in philanthropy. In 1913 John D. Rockefeller established the first American foundation. He needed an institution that could provide financial and knowledge services for his philanthropy for the long term. The re-bundling of data by peers hints at new needs. Network weaving and just-in-time data matter more, and the structures that support them will need to be as flexible, scalable, and portable as the networks they will serve. On the cusp of the first American foundation's centennial, we may be looking at the dawn of a new complementary form.


So, what do you think? Do you have more cloud-based examples of new approaches to giving or social change? Do you know of an online list (cloud-based) that I could access and reference? Am I nuts to think networks might matter as much as institutions going forward? Will program officers really become passe? Can peer networks replace professional advisers?

I welcome your comments, here and on twitter [@p2173]. We'll do our best to incorporate the ideas and suggestions into the paper and the project, and please believe me when I say, the discussions you and I are having on this blog, email and in twitter matter to this work. Thanks for all your help and please keep chiming in.

Stay tuned for Part Three: is there a conflict between the marketization of philanthropy as an industry and the real trajectory of a "networked information economy?"

*I highly recommend Nicholas Carr's book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, 2009 on the topic of cloud computing and thank him for the electricity analog.


Victoria Vrana, VP Communications and Assessment, VPP said...

Bravo on another thought-provoking post in this series! I will think of examples, but I also want to make a comment on Cloud computing. As you clearly state: The changes are not about the digital technologies. In order to unlock the potential of much of the data aggregation (which then allows for data manipulation and repurposing) you need the technology (it's here), the will (it's growing), and the agreed-upon formats, taxonomies, etc. I suggest that the latter will take longer to get to in our sectors, particularly when it comes to issues like how to measure social return and the complexities of data around human service delivery and advocacy. There are lots of nascent efforts, but we have a ways to go.

Lucy Bernholz said...

Thanks Victoria - I agree about the steps needed and your pacing of them. There seems to me some kind of hidden point at which the data use/agreement/move forward pace suddenly lurches ahead - Stephen Jay Gould's punctuated equilibrium comes to mind.


Lucy Bernholz said...

Here's another question for you wonderful folks - the outline in this post about how the project is designed - what do you think? Is it "so yesterday"? Can we try something different - recognizing of course that we have commitments to funders, etc..? @HASTAC - another Duke Center - does supercool digital stuff about learning, sharing and changing how university departments work - maybe there are other university center models we could look to for doing and sharing the thinking....

Ideas welcome. Thanks again


Unknown said...

It is time charitable organizations embraced the power of the internet, not fear it. I work in a small consultancy firm in Melbourne, Australia - our core focus is developing mutually beneficial relationships between corporate org's and community org's. A clear majority of the charities we work with are working in the dark ages - focussing their energy and resources on ancient practices such as mail outs, forming databases that are temporary, bloated and ineffective.
Recognizing this alarming trend, my company over the past 12 months has been working on the development of an online community that pulls together the resources of its members to support charitable projects. It's about multiplying what little we can give, and making a significant contribution to the local and global community. We're still in the early stages of development but you may be interested in it. Check out
Cheers, and keep up the good work.

crank report said...

Meaty indeed. My brain hurts.

I think that you are outlining an outstanding argument here. I agree whole heartedly that movement of data to the cloud allows us to get to a level of collaboration that funders have often wanted but have been very hard to manage.

Using cloud services does two things, I think, it makes the data accessible in wide ranging ways. This is Holly's big point, I think. That allows us to mashup data, make sense of the data and draw connections -- and insights -- that can be very hard to do when we are always looking at our own piece of the elephant.

Going into the cloud also has an impact on data standards. This is a little trickier to think about (and I'm far from an expert here). But it may be that we are choosing services -- Google Docs, Live Maps, Slideshare, etc -- that are making data format decisions for us and we will still have problems with integration unless we all decide to use a dominate platform. This is a very old issue -- it's just changed the ways in which is may be problematic.

I believe that if we are going to build a platform of social change on top our data sets -- and if we are going to use cloud computing tools to make it increasingly easy to share that data -- I think that we need to concentrate on a few data standards to be able to make sure that we can make ongoing use of these tools and that we can be as inclusive as possible.

That means, I think, that we do need some kind of data standards body within the nonprofit sector to help with this. I think it can be about modifying existing standards but making those standards common across the sector and encouraging the use of cloud computing services that utilize them.

I think this is important because that is part of what is going to make all of this portable, at different levels of granularity, so that users can group form around pretty atomic bits of information and then, via their own services, provide context to those bits of information.

And that is where the power of networks can very much come into play. I believe very deeply that the future of social change are self-forming groups. Facebook and Twitter are better than nonprofit organizations at some things (disseminating information, group forming) precisely because of the control the user has over small bits of info.

I believe we are moving to a gig economy. We don't work for organizations but for an issue or change or skill and we will self form around the projects that are the most interesting. But for that to work, we need better mechanisms for tracking, funding and recognizing those projects.

I think that does mean a change in the way that foundations are organized, the way that we track efforts and the role of organizations (whether foundations or NGOs) in moving those projects along.

Lucy Bernholz said...

Idealist moves to the Cloud