Sunday, June 24, 2012

Digital Public Goods (?)

On Thursday we held the fourth in our series of #ReCoding Good charrettes at Stanford. The topic - digital public goods. The question - do such things exist and, if so, how do they matter in the new social economy.

Here are links to the resources for the charrette and for the blog post from SSIR that sets up what we thought going into the conversation.
"As we try to theorize digital public goods, we need to distinguish among three possible conceptions:
  1. The digital platform. Digital public goods (the architecture of the Internet and ubiquitous access to it) reside in the digital domain itself—in net neutrality, access, and open source code.
  2. Availability of data online. Is the public good held in the data that are provided and distributed data online or via mobile technology (as part of the open data movement, for example).
  3. Digital social capital. Digital public goods reside not in some output, but in the social connections and engagement that the web makes possible. For example, the freedom of association and the liberty each of us possesses in a democracy to associate with whom we wish, without government scrutiny or regulation, takes form digitally in many respects on Facebook and is given political salience via platforms like
Each of these domains currently operates within a different set of policy spheres. Questions of Internet access fall under the purview of national telecommunications policies and multinational cooperative bodies such as ICANN. The data are often governed by intellectual property law, but may also be used for health care or educational regulations, or viewed as corporate assets. The third conception—social capital—has been seen as the realm of nonprofits and philanthropy, but is increasingly intermediated by commercial businesses or informal networks without institutional form, and without anything like the privacy and associational protections that go along with the First Amendment.

A growing body of research and writing on the nature of the Internet, networks, and data can inform our thinking. From the perspective of the ReCoding Good project, we focus on three sets of questions. The first set has to do with how our current systems work given the nature of these goods. For example, do we need to protect or incentivize digital public goods? If digital public goods are fundamentally different from analog public goods, do we need new enterprise models, funding, and/or legal code to protect and catalyze them? Do current models of private sector, public sector, nonprofit sector funding, creation, and distribution work in the digital economy, or are creating new ones?
A second set of questions looks at whether or not digital life changes how we associate with one another. Take, for example, networks of volunteer activists using public datasets to make smart phone apps. Do these “hacker communities,” which tend to thrive locally and share their products openly and globally, constitute a new form of civic engagement? Is there a new associational form emerging from these simultaneously local and global, organized but non-institutional, private (time) and public (data) groups? Does the digital domain change the nature of associational life? Does this have implications for the structure and role of nonprofits and philanthropy? Does it have implications for the future shape and/or definition of civil society?

A third set of questions turns the relationship between digital action and governance inside out, and asks whether the digital age presents an opportunity for new forms of governance or for improved forms of governance through enhanced transparency and accountability. What new opportunities do digital platforms raise for how we govern ourselves? Can digital platforms and online interactions change the incentive structure for how rulers are responsive to citizens, how accountability works between state and citizens, and, perhaps, how the nation-state itself might be transformed."
By the time Thursday was over we were well on our way to reconsidering the notion of digital public goods. Here's some of what happened - captured in photos and some quick reflections on Tumblr.

Stay tuned for the follow up post on SSIR where we'll look more closely at what we learned and why our thinking changed so dramatically due to the charrette. All in all a GREAT day's work (Thanks to the Stanford d.School for their help in making it happen)

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