Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Data and ...

On March 20 a group of researchers, policy makers, data experts, and nonprofit policy experts met to talk about Citizens United and the Future of the Social Sector. This was one of the #ReCoding Good charrettes I'm organizing as part of the Stanford Philanthropy, Policy and Technology Project - and a full synthesis of the meeting will soon be available on SSIR.

In the meantime, I wanted to highlight a few themes from that meeting that are very much on my mind.

1) Data and stories

We were honored to be joined by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker at the March 20 event, along with Dan Newman of Maplight and Lee Drutman of The Sunlight Foundation. Mayer is an investigative reporter, whose stories on the Koch brothers and Art Pope have been critical in helping Americans see the emerging intersections between politics and nonprofit organizations. Maplight is a data nonprofit - it collects, curates and shares data on money and politics. The Sunlight Foundation focuses on government transparency and uses a lot of data and data visualization to show patterns and connections.

The journalist and the data wonks agree - they need each other. Stories need data, data need stories. For example, check out the story on money and politics that ran on This American Life, informed by data from Sunlight Foundation. There was further reporting on the story, "Take the Money and Run for Congress" on NPR's Planet Money podcast. 

You can listen to the episode here, see the charts and read Planet Money's report here, and check out the analysis Sunlight's Lee Drutman conducted for these stories here.

Let's get past the false dichotomy between data and stories and get on with making change happen. Some new finds that I'm playing with and learning about that fit into this intersection:
  • Sparkwi.se- drag and drop dashboards to mix web data with video and other context. Find the stories in your data. This system is so easy to use that if you don't use it, you really just don't want to.
  • PopTech's World ReBalancing App - go ahead, play with it. From @poptech and @datanoborders
  • Civic Data Challenge - a new challenge to take municipal data and make it useful. Brought to you by National Conference on Citizenship, Knight Foundation and others. 
  • Catalyze4Change - 48 hours to generate idea for ways out of poverty (from Rockefeller Foundation and Institute For the Future)

The point of all this? It's getting ever easier to use and make sense of data. This is great because it means we can get to the next step, using the data to inform decisions, find new opportunities, think differently about change, and work with new partners. The point all along has been not about tech and not about data but about making change happen. We're getting there.

2) Data and a different kind of transparency

Another big point in the Citizens United discussion was the role of transparency. When it comes to money and politics, a lot of the discussion has been (and will continue to be) about donor disclosure. My summary at SSIR will have more to say about this. For our purpose here, however, I want to think about this a little bit differently.

Back in the early days of the web, folks often asked "What do I need a website for?"  Nowadays, people think "If I can't find it on a search engine, it doesn't exist." Lots of nonprofits (not so many foundations, fewer than 30%) have since built websites because they want to be found. They need to be findable to be relevant.

This same dynamic is going to work on philanthropic data. More and more governments and businesses are finding ways to use their data, publicly, to inform decisions. Check out what the UN is up to with its Global Pulse initiative. More and more people are mashing up multiple data sets - or using apps that do the mashing for them - in order to think about how the world works.

As this unfolds, nonprofits and foundations (which have a lot of data) are at risk of being irrelevant because of their opaqueness - if their data isn't findable, it isn't usable. If the data aren't visible, they can't be part of new solutions.

(Photo from UN Global Pulse)

And if nonprofits and foundations aren't part of new solutions? Well...I'll leave that to you. Here's what I had to say about this last year at Personal Democracy Forum. Here's what Fast Company said about the UN Global Pulse initiative and "data philanthropy."

I'll be talking more about this (5 whole minutes more, that is) at an Ignite Session at the Council on Foundations conference on May 1st. Hopefully, they'll share it.

3) Data and change

Digital public goods is the next topic for our #ReCoding Good charrettes. Is there such a thing? Is the digital economy - and the changes it makes to funding, creation and distribution - fundamentally shifting the dynamics of using private resources for public good? I think this is true though I don't yet know the full scope or scale of it.  Efforts at data philanthropy and data commons, the digital rights work of organizations such as Creative Commons, Media Democracy Fund and Electronic Frontiers Foundation are pointing toward a new set of digital goods, digital associational relationships, and digital assets. We'll be talking about this on April 19 - with SSIR blog posts before and after as always. Please join us.


Bradford Smith said...

Not suprisingly, Lucy, you beat me to it writing a post like this. But then again you always beat us and we find ourselves running to catch up to you. The fact that no one has responded to this post is telling. It may be because thinking and writing about data is like thinking and writing about air or water: it is all around us, increasingly involved in everything we do, and has no beginning, middle or end. In terms of philanthropy itself, the industry is nowhere near the era of Big Data. There are a few stirrings of interest but typically, it is in the form of grants by foundations for a few open and other data experiments rather than about the foundations themselves and their own stores of knowledge.

Keep pushing us.

Christine Egger said...

Another great post, and appreciation for Brad's comment. fwiw I'm just now catching up w/ Lucy's posts as I've been busy with a data-centered project :)

My general impression at the moment is that, for the part of the nonprofit sector I interact with, thinking and writing about data is akin to thinking and writing about...

architecture or construction, when all you thought you wanted to do was decorate your livingroom...

or molecular biology, when all you thought you wanted to do was drop a few pounds...

or etymology, when all you thought you wanted to do was learn how to speak conversational French

It isn't that decorating, losing weight, or learning a language doesn't draw on all of that deeper stuff. It's just in the case of data it's technically easier than ever to go deep AND wide; there are compelling reasons to do so; and the sector is learning the principles and practices of all of that in real-time.

fwiw, I can't wait until we're all chatting about the merits of various quantitative and qualitative analysis methodologies, though we'll need to find MUCH friendlier language than that, of course :)