Monday, October 28, 2013

Inventing Digital Civil Society

Every time you text a donation, use open source maps to help inform disaster response, or donate blood samples for medical research you are helping to invent digital civil society. Civic technologists, nonprofits, foundations, open data and open government advocates, mobile phone-toring activists - we're all a part of it. The Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford will introduce our inaugural research about these activities - and is seeking your input on our research agenda, open experiments, and policy thinking.

Here's a TEDx talk I gave on this idea back in May. 

You can join the conversation by answering two questions - check out our #2Q4 conversation (Two Questions for...) You can send us your insights on how you are inventing digital civil society and offer thoughts on the work of the lab. We're also collecting stories about civil society and big or open data - please add your thoughts on this wiki - generously hosted by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation as part of my role there as a Visiting Scholar.

The Case Foundation is generously hosting two workshops on the work of the Digital Civil Society Lab on October 29th.
One will take place from 10am - 12 Noon
The second will run from 3:00 - 5:00 pm.  
Please RSVP for only one session.
Space is limited for each session.

Our research papers are available here.

The Digital Civil Society Lab is a research project of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Stanford PACS is a research center for students, scholars and practitioners to explore and share ideas that create social change. Its primary participants are Stanford faculty, visiting scholars, postdoctoral scholars, graduate and undergraduate students, and nonprofit and foundation practitioners. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Metadata for #Good - the Digital Public Library of America

Libraries are core institutions of communities, of societies, of democracies. I had the great pleasure of spending the last two days at a festival hosted by the Digital Public Library of America ( - one of the many efforts that I see as being at the very heart of digital civil society.

What is There's an official mission statement - written 3 years ago by 40 people and still going strong today. Here's some of what I'm thinking as I wait to go home:
  • It's a portal, a platform and principle - 
  • It's a set of community tools for making library and curated community content (Americana) from across the country findable and visible, for free, everywhere, by anyone.  
  • It's civil society designed from the data up. And it's all about the people.
  • It's a way for people to build tools that matter to them
  • It's metadata used for good
  • It's a constantly evolving experiment (I learned that some schools can't access because its weird URL is blocked by IT filters. Even techies make mistakes!)
  • It's a policy advocate - see the proposal to the FCC about e-rates
  • It could feed an app that could help me find the scholars doing work that interests me
  • It could feed an app that would help all of us improve our searching capacities by learning to "think like a reference librarian" - or search laterally, as I heard today
  • It's a force for democracy and justice
  • It's a force for open access and fair use - and librarians have a great sense of humor. One proposal I heard was to create "fair use zones" - #FUZones - on the #internet to complement "Aaron Swartz Reading Rooms" in physical spaces. 
  • It needs to be multilingual
  • It's can be a force for training local librarians (and other community members) in digital technologies
  • Can it be a force for combining civic tech communities with librarians?
    •  #open311 + dpla = national connective tissue on community problems and solutions?
  • It's the data source powering the serendipomatic

Here's a #vizthink capturing some of the ideas from today's opening session made by @willowb100.

The events in Boston this week had originally been scheduled to take place in April and were postponed in response to the bombings at the Boston Marathon. At that time Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of DPLA, wrote these words:
"I see the building of a new library as one of the greatest examples of what humans can do together to extend the light against the darkness. In due time, we will let that light shine through."
The dpla  - its communities of activists, scholars, supporters, coders - truly shone this week.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Data-informed resiliency

I grew up in New York. Every time the weather man predicted a hurricane my mom would order us to "fill the bathtubs." On a few memorable occasions during my childhood that action proved useful as the tubs became our only source of flushable water. Most of the time the danger passed and we just emptied the tubs.

The first night I arrived in the Bay Area I was woken up around 4:00 am by the subway going underneath my grad student apartment. Except it wasn't the subway, it was an earthquake. Not big enough to wake the locals (especially just after the Loma Prieta quake in 1989) but it rocked this transplant.

One thing I immediately learned to respect about California cities was their overt attention to  emergency advice. NERTs (Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams) have regular sign-ups. The local fire station was happy to advise on earthquake preparedness kits. The city is dotted with billboards asking "Do you have a plan?"

The other day a colleague and I were discussing the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Initiative. As it happens, the colleague works for Palantir, which has made a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to help cities integrate data systems to improve their disaster response - a critical part of anyone's definition of resilience. I started thinking - what would data-informed resiliency look like?

Pictures of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, bombed Madrid trains, chemically-attacked Damascus suburbs and Sandy-smashed New York came quickly to mind. Food, shelter, water, health care, evacuation routes, power.

What data do cities already collect that, with the proper foresight and integration, could be useful in disasters? And how can they collect, use, and share the data in ways that protect personal privacy and that best serve the poor, infirm, and elderly (as opposed to discriminating against them)?
  • Can building permits be used to map wind and solar generators that would work post-natural disasters?
  • Can restaurant and grocery store business licenses, plus Yelp data, be shown to map commercial kitchens or food prep?
  • What data do cities collect on  suppliers that might be useful to map and identify useful redundancies in the food supply chain?
  • Remember all those maps of gas stations that popped up post-Sandy? Can those be opensourced in advance, so that live updates from tweets and cellphones are easier?
  • What data are in Open311 systems that might inform planning for medical or elderly care?
  • What about all those Facebook networks of volunteer animal rescuers? Can they be used to mobilize networks in disasters?
  • Convention bureau data on hotel rooms plus AirBnB data - helpful information on shelter?
  • Park department resources + neighborhood watches = disaster meeting points?
  • Evacuation routes and ways out - do car rental and car sharing help here?
  • The popup sites like [nameyourcityhere] - what might be done with those data in advance to plan for next time?
  • Business permits and licenses for nursing homes and home health aides - can this information be used, while respecting individual privacy, to help reach the elderly and infirm?
  • Data on in-home daycare sites - how might this be useful to aid in rescue of toddlers?
  • If folks can use #nextdoor to map halloween candy routes, can we use it for more serious purposes also?
I'm not an expert in disaster relief (obviously). But there seems to be lots of potential for using existing government data to power rescue and response efforts.

I've been impressed for a long time with the collaboration among data and tech activists across communities. TechPresident alerted me to a new portal on GitHub highlighting government-citizen code collaboration and the recent CodeForAmerica Summit in San Francisco had coders in from cities all over the country. The Open311 project seems like a good model - build it and share the code across cities.  Whatever type of natural disaster your city is prone to (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods), we're all prone to the same man-made disasters. We'll all have similar needs in those first 72 hours - food, water, medical care, power, evacuation. Resiliency is a good framework in which to think about these issues - if for no other reason than to do a "equity check" on the data our cities actually collect.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Feedback - Driving Real Change in Philanthropy

(Crossposted from


Feedback. If we can create real relationships between "donors" "doers" and "beneficiaries" we can reinvent philanthropy. Direct, credible, honest feedback - on what's working, what's needed, what's problematic.

A great group of innovators has started working on this through a self-initiated effort called Feedback Labs. Check it out. I'll be writing more - much more - on this.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A few questions about the data

I heard some great presentations at a conference on crowdfunding today. Made me think about where the data come from. It wasn't scientific, but by my ear it seemed most of the researchers were using Kickstarter data. How did they get it? Under what terms of use? What other crowdfunding platforms will make their data available to researchers? I tweeted the question and got this answer:

Does every researcher need to negotiate their own deal with the platforms? Are there any standards or expectations about these data being available for research? Where do these type of data - generated by crowds, aggregated by private companies or nonprofits, fall into #open data conversations?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Designing Change from the Data Up

I'm excited to work with some great data innovators on this upcoming session for #AweSummit.  You should be there if you can.

Designing Change from the Data Up
The act of giving generates a lot of data. Who’s collecting it, and who should have access to it? How do we manage this delicate personal data respectfully but transparently? What does it mean to design social change from the data up?
Facilitator: Lucy Bernholz, Digital Civil Society Lab, Stanford University
I'm also planning a different iteration of this for an event in February at the Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar. These public workshops all draw from the workshops at Stanford's Digital Civil Society Lab.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Write the Future (Rockefeller Foundation will turn it into art)

This is a great centennial-celebrating project from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Take a few minutes, add your thoughts about the future and meaning of philanthropy, and on October 14, 2013 the Rockefeller Foundation will unveil the artistic presentation of a globe's worth of ideas.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Good (and not so good?)

Huzzah to Brad Smith for this post on the Brave New World of Good. Stop. Go read it. Then come back here. (Please)

Brad does an important job of describing the new "sandbox" of good. The tag line could read: "Good: It's not just nonprofits and philanthropy anymore." It's also social enterprise, impact investing, open government and data, and political giving....This is the point I've been arguing in the last few years worth of Blueprints in which I describe it as the social economy. This is the term we've adopted at Stanford for describing all the ways we use private resources for public benefit.

Brad's absolutely right - the world of good is diversifying and expanding I can add one more item to Brad's list it that crossed my twitter feed today - market research on shoppers who "love shopping AND want responsible consumerism" (italics intend irony, which is mine). This is the extreme example of wanting it all.

But, surprising me, Brad stops short of pointing out the tradeoffs, ironies, limits, or mutually-exclusive intersections within this complicated sandbox of players. Here's the thing - each of the different things in this social economy or sandbox of good may be individually "good." But it's the interactions between them that matter. In some cases those interactions are not so good and may lead to meaningful, negative consequences.
  • Want an example? Supporting political issues through social welfare organizations has put anonymous charitable giving on a crash course with norms of political transparency.
  • Want another? Open data that is used to threaten personal privacy or safety.
  • Another? Market-based incentives that devalue long-term community building or policy focused work.
  • Another? State financing of nonprofit organizations that effectively make those theoretically-independent organizations less accountable distribution channels for public funds. 
  • Another? When philanthropic dollars release public agencies from using public funds for public purposes. 
With my colleagues Rob Reich and Chiara Cordelli I've written about some of the tradeoffs of "all this good." The paper, Good Fences: The Importance of Institutional Boundaries in the Social Economy, is one of a series from the #ReCodingGood Project and the new Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford.

We're also trying to lay out the new policy issues - where the tradeoffs lie - that this new reality brings forth. That work is outlined in the Social Economy Policy Forecast 2013. I'd welcome your responses and suggestions to any or all of this work and hope you'll help us think it through.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Flu Near You

The effects of the government shutdown are not just short-term. Things not getting done this week may matter months, and years, from now. One government function not being met in the short term that we know will matter over time is tracking the spread of the influenza virus.

Usually the purview of the Centers for Disease Control flu tracking is critical to health care in the immediate term. It also matters for long term planning, particularly for developing vaccines for next year's flu strains.

This is where a hospital, a public health association, and a funder have stepped in. Healthmap of Boston Children’s Hospital, the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund have created FluNearYou - an interactive map of flu reports (it also has information on vaccine availability). Video below.

The partners say it's their intention to "demonstrate ... utility for multiple sectors who must work together for pandemic preparedness if data is openly shared. The information on the site will be available to public health officials, researchers, disaster planning organizations and anyone else who may find this information useful."

This is essentially crowdsourcing information on behalf of public health. We're also seeing citizen crowdfund for city services that aren't available through tax revenue - see this story on security in Oakland. What we need to ensure is that these types of actions work with government and each extends the other. If we get to the point where we are relying on crowds to fund core public services, our democracy will be in even more trouble than it is now. But if we can use the crowd platforms to engage people, to partner with the public sector, to expand and complement civic responsibility than we'll be that much the better for it. Understanding these forms of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing as political acts - and designing them for maximum public benefit - is a big opportunity.