Sunday, July 15, 2012

Data - the new element

(image courtesy of Knight Foundation graphics staff)

Data. Data. Data. It's exciting to see so much being done with and said about data in philanthropy these days. Some key conversations to check out if you haven't already:

This discussion on the opportunities for 990 data and the new leadership of Guidestar in particular, started by Alexander Berger on his blog, Marginal Change.

This post by Brad Smith of The Foundation Center on Philanthropy's Data Dilemma.

Coming up - a special edition of Alliance Magazine on data in philanthropy.

Posts from our discussion on Digital Public Goods - starts with data but goes well beyond - from the Stanford ReCoding Good project.
Back in 2010 in Disrupting Philanthropy I claimed "data were the new platform for change." I still believe that. In a recent discussion with Mayur Patel of the Knight Foundation I realized my thinking had evolved. I've used a lot of metaphors to describe data - platform, fuel, raw material. Mayur and I suddenly realized we were talking about data as essential elements - similar to the chemical elements often pictured in the Periodic Table of Elements. In this familiar representation the elements are noted by a common symbol and their atomic weights. These elements are the building blocks of the chemical compounds such as water, air, etc that make life possible. Some are extremely common, others very rare. By identifying these elemental pieces, chemists have been able to explain the existence and structure of the chemical compounds that give us everything from water (Hydrogen (H, 1) and Oxygen (O, 8)) to cell phones (Tantalum, (Ta, 73)).

Why does this metaphor work when thinking about data in philanthropy? Because these raw elements are only the beginning of the story. For data to be useful in philanthropy they have to be known, accessible, and compoundable (able to be mixed and combined). Brad Smith's post above is critical in thinking about this point of compoundability. If everyone tracks their data separately, calls things by different names, and holds onto them behind closed doors, well, that's like having hydrogen in one room, oxygen in another and being desperate for a drink.

Imagine what could be done if we could reverse the process by which we now collect and use data. Right now, every foundation collects, catalogues and makes sense of their own information. More and more foundations are beginning to share their raw data (again, see Brad's post for information on this), but we're still at the point where we are "mining" for information from institutional silos and trying to organize them. 

Now flip that over - imagine we had a shared taxonomy (the coding elements) of and framework for (the equivalent of the periodic table itself) on geographies, social issues, funding types, population groups. The shared understanding and codes would be the default. Rather than working up from internal names of things to figure out if we are collectively working on the same issues we could start from there and go forward - where are strategies working? Where are dollars abundant and where are they scarce? Whose dollars follow whose  - public then philanthropic or philanthropic then public? Imagine if donors and doers everywhere were drawing from and contributing to a shared pool - a commons - of data. Today's data technologies make this possible, what we need to focus on are the legal, institutional, and cultural "technologies."

If (when) we start from the essential elements of information, and then slice, dice, share, analyze, synthesize according to our varied interests and concerns we will be using data the ways our current tools and capacities make possible. The late 19th and early 20th century is often thought of as the era of "scientific philanthropy," as tools of the industrial age created both great fortunes and (what were then) new institutional forms that mirrored the times. Drawing the metaphor forward, today we should be thinking of "information age philanthropy," which may be known for dispersed and open access to data, shared and mined by many, governed by rules that benefit and protect the public interest and personal privacy. How we think about the "table of elements," the collective use of data is particularly exciting now, for we are really shaping an era of new philanthropic practice. This is not just about 21st century philanthropy. Given the demographics of today's philanthropy and the advances being made in medicine, we should think of our experiments and innovations today as the early steps toward 22nd century philanthropy.

On a side note, I am honored to be called out in this list of "Women in Data" by O'Reilly Media. Made my day.


George McCully said...

Lucy is right about the need for systematic data collection, for which a systematic taxonomy of fields and people are prerequisites.

There is already a systematic taxonomy of philanthropic fields, yoked to a systematic demographics of people served (as well as revenue size, location, and year founded) for Massachusetts, in the Massachusetts Philanthropic Directory (, which the Catalogue for Philanthropy has been developing since 1997, and which we plan to replicate for all other states nationwide over the next several years.

Aaron Spevacek said...

It strikes me that we've got a way to go before we can use the periodic table as anything other than a qualified metaphor. Whether it's the problems with data in 990s or the multiple definitions of homelessness, not only does the sector have a difficult time comparing apples to apples, but the organizations collecting the data have their own interests in creating the definitions that they use.

I wonder if the periodic table also works as an aspiration?

Great post. Thanks for (once again) pushing the conversation forward.

Bradford Smith said...

Well done, Lucy, almost philosophical in calling for a new century of "information age philanthropy." One thing I think we need to resist in all this is the notion that a single taxonomy or data standard will solve the information problems/challenges of philanthropy or, more broadly, the social sector. Proceeding down that path alone will take a very long time, perhaps forever, and we will risk letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Our goal should be social sector data that can be aggregated through architecture and technology platforms that are interoperable. My hunch is that getting there will be through processes that are top-down, bottom up, experimental, inside out and outside in.