Monday, June 07, 2010

New solutions from data and crowds

I'm two-thirds of the way through Clay Shirky's new book - Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in the Connected Age - and I wasn't planning on writing about it until I was done. But in a perfect meta-example of both my point and the behaviors of distraction described in excruciating detail in today's New York Times, I got an email, linked to a blog post, commented on the post and now here I am, madly blogging before I get back to work.

I'm reading Shirky's book with pencil and notepad (!!) in hand - taking copious notes and loving it. Shirky does an incredible job of illustrating a point that I care about deeply - it's not the technologies that matter, it's the behaviors and expectations that they allow. (See Disrupting Philanthropy on this point).

What Shirky adds are clear research and compelling stories that make us understand that our human motivations are age old, technologies provide new opportunities, and that this combination (motivation + opportunity) can change our behavior. Not only that, the nature of our current technologies changes the scale of our individual behaviors.

Reading this was an Aha! for me. I've been trying to make sense of the relationship between "data" and "crowds" as a I work on my own forthcoming book. The DataJam crystallized something for me - data and crowds are two sides of a coin. Crowds can organize around data - think of people coming together around photos on Flickr. Then they use the data - commenting on photos, linking to other photos, tagging and grouping photos, adding photos - and they become the source of more data. Another example - Ushahidi unlocks crowdbased data in terms of geotagged tweets or SMS messages. These data are then integrated with, compared to, considered by holders of "central data" - such as the State Department or Red Cross - and suddenly we have a different type of coordination solution for getting aid to earthquake victims. Crowds use data and crowds generate data. There is a feedback loop that can grow and accelerate.

But Shirky takes this further and argues that the feedback loops and the data and the crowds add up to more than the sum of the parts. They provide a new "soup" (my word, not his) in which we behave, old behaviors come undone and new relationships and linked behaviors get created. Our individual behaviors create a collective set of behaviors, and, in turn, the collective changes our individual behaviors. Shirky's focus is on how individuals and groups shifts along these lines, and he makes a clear and accessible connection to the re-emergent interest in the commons as a form of production and governance. (I'll be back with more on Shirky's book - but for now, let me tell you, it is a must read. Available in bookstores on June 10 - Thursday!)

So I read until late last night, got up this morning, read the NY Times about how distracted technologies make us, checked my email and found an email and a link to this post at Change Charity - Collective Venture Philanthropy. I get sent a lot of things like this - but I read the email and clicked through on the link because I had seen a tweet about the post last night, emailed it to myself as a reminder to read it and the two emails (mine to myself and the one from the post's author, Jeff Raderstrong) came up in my inbox back to back.

Jeff's post is well worth a read. He posits the possibility that social media will allow small donors a direct role in launching, creating and funding riskier new startups - moving them to a new place in the philanthropic capital stream then ever before. He uses Kickstarter as a model and reflects on the success of Kiva and DonorsChoose in engaging individual donors in new ways.

I think Jeff is raising the right questions. When we wrote Disrupting Philanthropy, my colleagues Ed and Barry and I had endless debates on the meaning of two of the graphs in the book - The Long Tail of Giving (p 11) and The Long Tail of Receiving (p 12).

Each of the graphs is accurate in and of itself, and they look a lot alike. But we disagreed on what they meant when considered together. We couldn't find any conclusive data or analysis of data that satisfied all three of us on how these two pictures relate to each other. Who funds the long tail of nonprofits? Big donors, small donors, and in what mix? For that matter, who funds the head of the tail of nonprofits - big donors, small donors, or both and in what mix?

We don't have great data on exactly how this relationship has worked - but the power of technology and social media is likely to change whatever relationship has long existed. People are using online giving platforms to find information on giving options, to share their own ideas, to propose their own solutions, and to find like-minded donors. They are cross referencing Nick Kristof columns with Charity Navigator data, searching for organizations on Guidestar and then making a gift on GlobalGiving. They are encouraging their friends to join communities on Facebook and proposing their own community garden projects to charity contests on JustMeans.* We are using and creating a new ecosystem of information (What I call an Infostructure) that informs us, raises awareness of new types of experts and expertise, and generates new ideas for new sources of information. They are using data and adding data. They are behaving as individuals but the collective impact is changing the landscape of giving. And the collective landscape is changing how each of us gives the next time around.

I commented on Jeff's post here - and won't repeat the whole thing on this site. Go check out Jeff's query and my comment and join us in the discussion either here or there. This is a real time, living example of the very forces that Shirky describes, that today's NYT bemoans, and that I believe are here to stay and are fundamentally shifting how we make change happen.

*Full disclosure: The Little Haiti Community Garden Project linked to on JustMeans was brought to my attention in an email from a friend who volunteers there.


Christine Egger said...

Lucy, every time I read a blog post of yours, I have three equal emotional reactions:

Something inside me relaxes a little. Feels relieved. "Ah," that part of me says. "Something that needs to be said is being said. Something important has been communicated clearly. The world has a little less work to do now, and we're better prepared to do the work that remains."

And in equal measure, I get excited. "Oh dang!" that part of me says. "This is so cool! We're starting to really get our heads around what's changing here, the ubiquity of information, our own participatory role in its generation-dissemination-use-regeneration, and an appreciation for what we don't yet know about where this will take us all. What simply awesome times we live in. :) "

And then there's gratitude. Always a ton of that, too. Thanks for weaving together themes of data, crowds (which I'm starting to unpack as "ephemeral assemblies of individuals + communities" whenever I hear it), and online action/giving. Two big events coming up for me -- a NYC gathering later this month of many online giving platforms and some intermediaries like Social Actions, and a conference session on online fundraising for UK nonprofits -- and this post and its embedded material will inform my preparations for both. *Thank you*

Lucy Bernholz said...

Well, holy mackeral Cristine, that is the loveliest comment I've ever received. I'm glad to have been helpful. Please keep us all informed on the meetings you referenced - the gathering in NYC and the UK group - both sound fascinating.

And in my continuing homage to Clay Shirky, let me point out that he has an entire section on the importance of "thank yous" as currency in this type of social production - in a very interesting story about fans of Josh Groban and how they raise money for charity -

Thank you Cristine.


Unknown said...

Dear Lucy,

Thank you so much for such an informative and engaging blog post!

You have parsed out data on giving and receiving, but one question remains with me.

How do we make these microgiving initiatives like Kiva and Kickstarter into a way of life for people, into something woven into the fabric of society as such that they come back again and again and give more?

What interests me is not so much the one time small gift, but the giver. Not so much the loan, but the relationship.

What interests me is the systems we create around social media to make people commit to engaging and reengaging.


Paul Dombowsky said...

I think the idea of giving is directly tied to community and how we ventured away from tight community ties and are now going back to them. micro giving was very common at one time (ie. when someone was sick my grandmother would bake a little extra and do up a food basked, etc.), Over the past twenty odd years we have been moving away from community in its traditional sense which has led to the rise of more formal institutions to help people out of temporary jams. Perhaps what happened was that getting a hand became too formal and thus carried the stigma, etc. that come with it.

With new community definitions taking hold through online connections, is it possible that once again - perhaps wider engagement in supporting each other is possible through crowd sourcing efforts, etc.

I think a relationship rooted in community and not in the handout, and facilitated by technology, is the way to go.


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