Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Data Philanthropy

On Monday I posted a brain dump on how data can change philanthropy. (I hope you'll add to that list of ideas. Feel free to put other examples up as well)

But the real change coming from data is much bigger - because it's everything in that post and more. Data are reshaping our associational life. Our associations - neighborhood groups, nonprofits, mutual aid organizations, temporal networks - are how we use private resources (time, wisdom) for public (collective) good. Philanthropy is one way we participate in associational life with private money. We are beginning to see half-step change in philanthropies participating in associational life with data.

Here's the half-step practice change:
Data need to be seen as both an input and output of philanthropic dollars and institutions. The dollars are limited. The information they create and can catalyze can be re-used and re-applied over and over (if let loose into the world with that intention).

If foundations really valued data as an input, they'd rethink their grants management departments. These data experts wouldn't just deal with compliance issues, they'd be unleashed on relevant external data sets that matter to the foundation's program strategies. They'd be let loose to map, crunch, remix public data sets, peer data sets, industry data sets that would be used by program officers to develop their funding strategies. Grants management isn't just compliance, its strategy and learning. They'd partner with program and evaluation staff to make teams with data, domain, and grantmaking expertise, as well as appropriate external networks to assess and validate internal ideas. They'd be part of building the learning cycles and tools that would keep the grants meaningful and the foundation catalytic, not just compliant. They'd lead the charge in re-inventing evaluation at foundations, a process that data, shared data systems and data software will accelerate.

If foundations really valued data as an output, they'd rewrite their grant agreements and contracting language. Creative Commons or other public re-use licensing would be the norm not the exception. Sharing data sets produced by philanthropic dollars (in machines readable form) would be standard practice (as would be the real-time publishing of grants data). Foundations would promote, experiment with,  and build communities around their data and their grantees data - they would structure their grants to produce and release data for others - designing the grants from the beginning for the multiplying effect of the data products (and the open source tools to make sense of the data).

What if philanthropic investments were designed to supply data into a data commons? What if philanthropy took on public access to data as one element of civil society? What if we provided incentives for the open sharing of knowledge and data in the regulatory streams that guide philanthropy?

Here's a full-step practice change:
To me, the most exciting development in philanthropy right now is the spread of data philanthropy.  Data philanthropy as Robert Kirkpatrick of Global Pulse views it, is when big BIG DATA companies (telecomms, search engines, social networks) donate their public use data (privacy rights protected, opt in only) to a data commons. If more foundations and private companies (Data CSR?) did this we'd be able to start addressing shared social and humanitarian goals in the same way we now work on developing viral advertising. As The Economist recently noted:  "It's now remarkably easy to share data around the world, mine massive data sets for interesting relationships, test those relationships with powerful statistical software, and publish and share results with audiences the world over, all in a matter of hours." Shouldn't we be thinking this way about hunger, global warming, migration routes, poverty, and education? Here's what Kirkpatrick describes Global Pulse trying to do:
"...analysis of patterns within big data could revolutionize the way we respond to events such as global economic shocks, disease outbreaks, and natural disasters. Our team of data scientists, open source hackers, and international development experts functions the way an R&D lab does: asking questions, formulating and testing hypotheses, building prototypes and collaborating with partners within and outside the United Nations to develop methods for harnessing real-time data to gain a real-time understanding of human well being."
We need to think about the "common good" of aggregated data - in economics, health care, environmental justice, land use policy, education - you name it. The bipolar data system we are developing - data either owned by companies or governments or solely owned and not shared by individuals  - leaves nothing in the commons. The rights of the individual - their ownership of their data and the privacy rights to make decisions about it- are critical. We are new to this digital landscape - and would be naive to assume that today's tools will be tomorrow's, that businesses have individuals' best interests at heart, or that we, as individuals can't shape our associational life online to meet our own, and our collective (non market, non government) best interests. But we have to be intentional about it. Doc Searls' new book - The Intention Economy - makes this clear from an individual point of view. (Here are Ethan Zuckerman's notes on the book).

Here's the full-scale change that reconsiders the frames of operation:
There is still a larger shift underway. Data and digital exchange have shifted the bounds of organizations. Lee Rainie argue that networked individuals - not groups (families, workplaces, associations) are the organizing force in this environment. And individuals create alliances, move among multiple associations, and create new relationships over the course of their lives.

Many in the commons movement (along with thinkers and doers about open government, digital ownership, the sharing economy, free press, public libraries, net neutrality, the electronic frontier -) have been leading the thinking is how do we want to associate digitally - what new rules do we want or need around sharing our data, using it for collective problem solving, what new structures, what new revenue streams, and what new governance. Our history is shaped by an active associational sector - influencing, not just responding to, markets and governments. We need this same intention when it comes to digital spheres. We need to think about what data we are willing to share to solve shared social problems, how we will share these data, how we will use them, and how we will get them back.

Just as our forebears designed our current associational systems, we need to define a space for networked private individuals to create public goods in the digital age. Just as we've defined and protected an independent sector in the analog world, we need to provide a voice for the commons when it comes to using private data for public good. Our existing nonprofits and foundations can lead is in this this via practice and experimentation (see the half steps up above).

But it is likely that our analog associational forms will themselves need to change. We need the role that they play, but do we need new forms of associations? The nature of data - which is very different from the nature of shared physical space - makes it worth considering what shared digital associational space, shared digital associational assets, and shared digital associational governance structures will best serve us.

The real barrier we face now is changing how our institutions are run, how they are governed, the incentives and compliance requirements we put on them. For foundations, there is an enormous opportunity to innovate on the form - and the currency (data) - that they deploy in service of their missions.  This is an incredible time for philanthropists to redesign foundations - to experiment, re-imagine, and think differently about the structures that will best use data as a philanthropic resource.

The technology is here to let us think about solving public problems in whole new ways - but the legal and regulatory frames for doing so are not yet developed. "It takes a long time for institutions and economies to rearrange themselves to take best advantage of new technologies." We will need to re-write the rules and regulations that define philanthropy, from their bases in 20th century financial assets to those that fit a data-abundant world.


Bradford Smith said...

This is great, Lucy, as a long-term aspirational model of where the sector could/should be heading. Apart from the regulatory framework, which will always be behind where technology is taking us, the two major problems I see are with the heterogeneity of the sector itself and with market forces.

The kinds of "foundations" you are talking about have staff, strategies, initiatives, IT departments, etc. But 76% of America's foundations have four staff or less and thousands have virtually no staff at all. So there is literally no one home at these foundations to ponder the kinds of megatrends you are discussing. But they are still foundations and whatever rules and regulations are ultimately developed have to work for all shapes and sizes of entities that make up the legal definition of "foundation."

Then there are the realities of the market. Data may be "open" but they are never really free. Costs were incurred along the way by those from whom data originated, those that collected it, those that cleaned it and those that build interfaces for it. Those costs may have been paid by individuals, tax dollars, businesses, advertisers, or all of the above. But I sometimes worry that while we are all distracted by data jambs and hackathons that produce cool apps to map potholes and predict transit schedules, the greatest beneficiaries of all this "open data" will be large, commercial data companies who will ultimately come to control and contain it in gigantic, walled gardens. We need to think more about controlled experiments involving significant open data sets to see if innovation and problem-solving at scale can be sustained. Examples may be out there in the social and environmental spheres but most of what we tend to hear and read about is more anecdotal than rigorous.

This is a great post, rich in ideas and challenges. Thanks for taking the plunge.

Lucy Bernholz said...


Thanks again! I want to take on all of the issues you've raised - "open, not free," sector variation, agenda for the field - I'll start working on that post.


Unknown said...

Great post. As a student of computer science at Evergreen I'm doing undergraduate research with CIRAL (the Civic Intelligence Research and Activism Lab). We've been discussing Big Data and it's relationship to civic intelligence. Data is history: the movement of data to private stores via social networks, governments, and corporations is a dangerous trend. Storage is shrinking in personal devices. The consolidation of data into private hands implies that someone someday might have the ability to flip a switch and shut off a library, or access to medical records, or... who knows? Distributing data by making it available for analysis works to keep information flowing through the public.

Jeff Stanger said...

Lucy, this is a broad, great set of ideas, I think reflecting the breadth of definitions and uses of "data." You and I have bounced ideas on this before. You know that at CDI I'm working the angle of data as communication assets, but you present a much richer and nuanced view in this post. It had me jumping out of my seat to roll up my sleeves, as did Brad's response (Brad, let's meet in DC), which rightly unpacks data gathering, interfacing, etc. Lucy and I have brainstormed on that very topic. I dusted off a couple of items to contribute that get at my thinking about structural changes and Lucy's idea of a "data ecosystem":

A Digital-First Dissemination Model
which views data as a product (they currently are not, documents are the product) and how changing the end point of data gathering (to digital media) potentially affects data quantity, quality and reusability


a sketch spawned by a conversation with Lucy: Data vs. Interface, Operation vs. Communication

Interested in your comments Brad and Lucy, and of course interested in continuing to help think (and operationalize) some aspects of this.

Michelle Greanias, Grants Managers Network said...

I’m suddenly feeling a little like John Malkovich. Lucy, have you been crawling around in my head?

This is a wonderfully clear articulation of exactly where I think grants management is headed—transforming from process management to data management/analysis/interpretation.

I think that data can serve both the grantmaker in helping to identify effective practices and drive strategy, but also inform the field as you describe. I do think we have a long way to go to build buy-in among grantmakers that the data they hold can provide another path to achieving their missions.

Brad—I complement you and your team for your work to wrangle the field to develop common coding standards (e.g., diversity, geography) and showing how that data can then be aggregated and interpreted to drive discussions around priorities and effective use of resources—showing how sharing data can be in the best interests of grantmakers.

It seems that we need to keep tackling this from both sides—top down to convince trustees/management that data sharing is in their self-interest and bottom-up to prove it to them through smaller, manageable projects (led by grants managers, of course :) ) of the power that data can have.

Hopefully, when these two approaches connect in the middle (or just get closer), we’ll have created the data commons Lucy describes. I look forward to seeing this vision realized!

Lucy Bernholz said...

Thanks for writing in. I particularly agree with this observation :

"It seems that we need to keep tackling this from both sides—top down to convince trustees/management that data sharing is in their self-interest and bottom-up to prove it to them through smaller, manageable projects (led by grants managers, of course :) ) of the power that data can have."

In addition, I think those who really "get data" - Fdn Center, GMN, etc - can take a lead on the changing resource issue that opening up the 990s makes possible - see this post -