Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The giving quants or "algorithmic philanthropy"

I spent the weekend preparing for, and then taping, a segment on digital activism for Philanthropy Talk. That's the public radio "car talk" program for philosophical questions. The segment will air in January.

So it's no wonder that I have thought experiments on my mind. Yesterday when I opened The New York Times (the actual paper edition) I read a range of stories. Sometimes when I read the paper my mind plays tricks on me - like, did the person who wrote the story on page A1 read the story on page B8? Today, several stories in the paper seemed to be speaking to each other - the first one was on robots and jobs. The other one was on artificial intelligence research.

Here's where my mind went (bear with me, this will be about philanthropy and civil society)

First, some background:
This year while I was working on the Blueprint, I kept wanting to do more imaginative work on digital technologies. It's one reason I regularly read newsletters from and the Singularity Institute, I go to campus lectures on neural networks and the block chain and other stuff I don't understand and I'm a member of the Long Now Foundation. All efforts to try to learn about far-edge technology. But the far-edge of technology is not the right topic for the Blueprint, since many people who read it are still coming to grips with hashtags and chat apps. So I keep a notebook of thoughts on edgy technology and civil society, trying to figure out what to do with them. This year, one of the pre-readers of the Blueprint said to me, " You know, this is all well and good, but what about the really interesting technological stuff - like neural networks and pattern recognition and AI and robots, and what not?"

So he and I went off and had coffee. And we're trying to figure out what to do with my notes, his observations, and the intersections and implications of cutting-edgier science and technology on philanthropy and civil society.*

Reading the two news stories noted above, I learn that many economists are no longer sure that   technological advances (such as robotics) will create more jobs than they destroy. And then, turn a few pages, and I read about a 100 year study to look at the real effects of artificial intelligence. That is, the study begins now and will run for 100 years. Where will the study take place? Stanford University (with lots of academic partners). It's called AI100

So how do you reconcile these two thoughts - "tech is changing the economy but not augmenting it" with "let's invest now in something to run for 100 years." You make a gift to a nonprofit. Admittedly, a nonprofit with a large endowment, but what is to say that this university (or any institution) will withstand the very forces this study aims to examine? In other words, if you make a 100 year bet to understand a technology's impact, how do you know the technology won't destroy the place you made the bet before the century is up?**

Now, the thought experiment (When AI ate philanthropy)
Assume some folks begin to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence, data and data analytics to the increasing amount of quantitative data being generated by and about social  organizations. This is a completely plausible step from where we are now - what with the effective altruism movement, random control trials, and the emerging data infrastructure for philanthropy. One possibility is such a trajectory leads to the Hedge Fund version of donors - "quant givers." Guided by algorithms and data (replacing program officers and philanthropy advisors) machines would match a donor's dollars with social causes. If we assume that the capacity to do this (at least in the short term) would take a lot of money to build out, we can also assume that the charitable dollars would be coming from wealthy people (or perhaps pools of money from donors, pushing further on the hedge fund metaphor), and so the gifts would also be large. As such, they'd be attractive to organizations, who would try to fit themselves into the models (just as organizations "optimize their search terms" to fit Google search algorithms). Because the algorithms "learn," they get better and better at finding and matching, data crunching and report generating. They create their own, powerful, self-sustaining feedback loop.

It's possible such algorithmic philanthropy could drive enough resources and draw enough attention from fund seeking nonprofits. The feedback loop thus grows to a larger force that begins to change the kinds of measures and metrics that lots of nonprofits track and provide. This leads to behavior change among the vast swath of nonprofits, changing the "marketplace" of options available to smaller, more passion-oriented (or simply less data-driven) donors (i.e. most of us). What would it do to the measures and data that were collected and fed into the machines?

How much would it take before the quant-driven feedback loop affected change throughout the ecosystem of nonprofits? How would parallel movements of impact investing and performance measures, earned revenue and double bottom lines play into this story? How would the more personal, direct-involvement approach of most donors counteract this approach? What countervaling influence could intuition, expression, personal passions, minority voice, and donor choice have on this feedback loop? Just how far can we rationalize/algorithmically structure giving? And how far should we? What if we took all the humanity out of philanthropy?

One likely answer to that question is that the measures would focus ever more on quantifiable, short term outputs that can be easily collected. From the perspective of the algorithm it would be harder to justify longer-term investments in hard-to- measure activities (it would also probably skip over startups with no metrics at all). Long term enterprises and startups might not even "make it into the data" being used by the algorithms.

What falls into this category of long-term hard-to-measure charitable opportunities? Well lots of things like advocacy, policy analysis, and basic research. Oh, and endowed universities.

So, are 100 year research efforts on technological change even possible? How do we factor in the effects of these digital technologies on the peripheral technologies like nonprofit universities that house them? What happens when the thing being researched consumes the place that conducts the research?

*What do you think we should do? A new blog? An annual look at just tech and philanthropy? A "hype cycle" analysis? A two by two?
**This paradox, by the way, is one of the reasons I believe so strongly in focusing on the effects of digital innovation on civil society. Most studies of digital change look at their implications for business or government and assume that nonprofits will just keep on keeping on. I think that's nuts.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The (failure) and future of civil society

A friend forwarded this to me in an email - it's a link to an article in The Guardian, a letter from the head of Civicus, a global organization representing civil society organizations.

In it he notes the growth of the sector.
And its failures to solve the problems it seeks to address.

In his words:
"We – civil society – have been co-opted into economic and institutional processes in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred. Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organisations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change."
And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution."
The article links to an open letter signed by many of the founders and leaders of the organization - there they state:
"Around the world, ordinary people are losing trust in the global governance system.  They have little faith in elected governments and public institutions. They do not believe that big corporations tell them the truth. They see the international intergovernmental system as irrelevant at best and ineffectual at worst.  ...

Yet still they dream of equality and rights.  Indeed, beyond dreaming, many actively fight for it in their daily lives.  Across all continents, people rise up on the streets, in slums and villages and towns and cities, in protest to demand jobs and decent education and health for their communities.
They have done so to end corruption, they have marched to demand participation in the decisions that affect their lives and they have risen to demand basic services like water and sanitation. ...

Sadly, those of us who work in civil society organisations nationally and globally have come to be identified as part of the problem.  We are the poor cousins of the global jet set.  We exist to challenge the status quo, but we trade in incremental change.  ...

A new and increasingly connected generation of women and men activists across the globe question how much of our energy is trapped in the internal bureaucracy and the comfort of our brands and organisations.  They move quickly, often without the kinds of structures that slow us down.  ..."
This is a call for reflection, renewal and reconsideration. Of an entire sector. By its leaders. 

We need civil society. People and societies need the space to protest, to make change, to protect minority rights, to express differences, arts, values, and opinions that don't win the votes of a majority or the dollars of industry.

I take heart in this call for change. A call "from the top," to make necessary changes, to consider the activists, protestors, networks and new enterprise forms as allies not threats, as part of the future of civil society not just as threats to the past. We need to re-imagine how civil society will work and what it will look like, not give up on it. This is especially true right now, as we get smarter about digital tools and infrastructure, both of which can do great things but which also default to settings at cross purposes to many civil society values. We need to make the tools work for the values - this is what we mean when we talk about "ReCoding Good."

Monday, December 15, 2014

The whole social economy in one place

Nonprofit. Network. Benefit corporations. Peer-to-peer platforms, the sharing economy, social welfare nonprofits.... I've been writing about this mix for years - on this blog, in the Blueprint series, and at Stanford.

(photo: (c) Copyright Lucy Bernholz, All rights reserved.)

Today, Peers, a nonprofit membership association that owned and operated a for-benefit corporation - all in the service of the sharing economy - has now split into two organizations. One will be be a benefit corporation (and a B Corporation) and one will be a nonprofit organization. One will raise investment capital, the other will rely on memberships and donations. Both organizations have stopped focusing on the sharing economy companies and started focusing on the people who use those platforms for work (the drivers, shoppers, and room-renter-outers). You can read all about the transition here.

It's like all those little bubbles in one. Not your grandmother's nonprofit sector.

Oh, and on this topic, I'm pleased to have contributed the Foreword to a new book, Understanding the Social Economy in the United States, due out in February from University of Toronto Press.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Data and Civil Rights

In 12 years of blogging, I've never done this before.

I urge you to go to the website Data and Civil Rights, download all of the papers, and read every single one. Then think about your life, your work and your next steps. Whatever area of civil society you focus on - education, health, criminal justice, employment, finance, health or housing - there are materials there for you. (What happened to the environment?)

I was not involved in the conference that the website documents. I wish I had been. This work matters to all us. All of us need to think about these issues, engage in the conversations and research, and take what is being learned and apply it to our efforts. Here's what the conference organizers had to say in preparing their follow up:
"This event built on the civil rights community’s efforts in producing the Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data and the lessons learned by the White House in their 2014 review of big data. The White House’s report – “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values – highlighted the need to better understand the potential for discrimination, inequality, and other civil rights issues. While technology-minded communities have considered the potential and challenges presented by “big data,” these techniques and data practices affect more than the technology sector. Many issues central to the civil rights community – including criminal justice, education, employment, finance, health, and housing – are being affected by “big data” dynamics. In order to better understand what is at stake for our civil rights, we sparked a conversation that crossed sectors to identify a path forward. We wanted to better understand technology’s potential and develop a grounded sense of where there are concerns and what we can do to prevent problems.
This site offers documentation of the event, including written primers that attendees used during the event to explore key issues as well as write-ups of the discussions themselves.
Please send any feedback or ideas to nextsteps at"
Several years ago I wrote to the nonprofit and foundation community that "how we use our digital data will define us." The conversations and papers from this website put detail, pain, and possibility to that statement. 

I hope to incorporate much of this work into the 2015 plans and products for the Digital Civil Society Lab. I am so glad this work is being done.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Philanthropy Buzzwords 2015

I have been keeping a list. Checking it twice. (And doing so since 2007).

Below are the Philanthropy Buzzwords to look out for 2015. The list is also featured on the Chronicle of Philanthropy's site.

The 2015 Blueprint - which goes global this year with help from the great folks at betterplace lab  - is now live. It has a buzzword list + special "design school edition" of buzzwords, predictions for the year ahead, and all the usual annual goodies. This is the 6th annual forecast - get your free copy at GrantCraft.

1. Internet of Things

It’s no longer just your laptop and your phone that hook you in to the online world. Digital connections are now linking our watches, shoes, refrigerators, thermostats, cars, and almost anything else that can hold a teeny-tiny chip. Each of these devices becomes a sensor—a collector and distributor—of data about our habits, our activities, and us. More promise and more peril await nonprofits and the people they serve as a result of this transformation. The Internet of Things is also known as ubiquitous computing or the "web with many things."

2. Citizen Science

As the cost of materials, equipment, and information drop, the do-it-yourself and "maker" movements are turning to garage biology, chemistry, and physics. Teenager Jack Andraka made headlines as a self-taught cancer researcher who discovered a pathbreaking way to detect pancreatic cancer early, and Public Lab has launched numerous well-known science projects for social good. Lots of people engaging in science is a good thing. On the other hand, given the ubiquity of data-collecting devices (see Internet of Things), we’ll surely have more occasions to ask, "How did they get that information?" and "Who should be monitoring the scientists?"

3. Giving Days

Dedicating a specific day to fundraising for a certain cause has a long history. Galvanizing lots of people around challenge grants has been a mainstay fundraising tool deployed by American community foundations for several years. But with the spectacular success of Giving Tuesday, a re-branding of the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving to focus on charitable giving, these events have reached a new pitch. In its third year, the event has gone global and become a much-watched case example of using social media for good.

4. A/B Testing

This is the practice of showing different interfaces or options to specific groups of people and seeing which one is best at generating the behavior you want to spark. Commonly used by direct-marketing firms, software developers, and interface designers, A/B testing entered common parlance with the Obama presidential campaign’s widespread use of it in testing fundraising emails. The 2014 Facebook "contagion" study, which used algorithmic manipulation to see whether happy or grim news changed how people behaved, reminded us that the software behind our screens is making choices about what we see.

5. Data Gender Gap

Gender disparities abound in data. Yes, even today medical research is still done mostly on men (or male mice). Many other large sets of data are used to inform policy or grant-making decisions, despite the built-in biases created by omission. Similarly, large collections of data also abound in—and can reinforce and exacerbate—racial, ethnic, linguistic, geographic, and economic biases. Look for resources on data discrimination and the built-in biases of data analytics and prediction to get far more (much-needed) attention in 2015.

6. Encryption

Human-rights activists are on the front edge of creating and using secure technologies to stay clear of corporate and government oversight. Major foundations and large nonprofits have become targets for hackers, whether they’re looking for sensitive grant information or stealing donor information. A new British nonprofit, Simply Secure, makes encrypted software for email and mobile phones easier to use and more readily available. Nowadays, security is about more than not clicking on the suspicious link in that phishing email. Nonprofits and foundations will be taking more steps to keep their abundant digital data secure.

7. Artivists

Take art, mix it with activism, and you get artivists. Whether it’s posters and sculptures in public squares or the artistic protest associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, artivists are stepping out of the shadows and into the limelight. There’s a book of case studies, Beautiful Trouble, to help inspire and coach. Art played a role in the 2014 Hong Kong protests and is part of an effort by cyclists in Germany to connect crowdsourced data on biking routes to public art projects, all in the name of changing public policy.

8. Wearables

Bracelet-style fitness monitors, upmarket pedometers masquerading as jewelry, and digital-sensor-enabled clothing to monitor sweat patterns or heart rhythms are just the latest ways people are wearing devices to connect them to the Internet. Opportunities to donate to charity based on your "steps walked" emerged almost instantly after Fitbit tracker became popular. These devices also fed a widely publicized data visualization of how the 2014 Napa Valley earthquake disturbed sleep, which may be a harbinger of how big data will be used. The data from these devices have already made it into courtroom battles. The more common these devices become, the more people resemble walking, talking cheap data points.

9. Smart Cities

More and more of the world’s population now lives in cities. Cheap materials and improved data-collection processes mean our cities are filled not only with more people but with more sensors, cameras, parking-space sensors, tollgate passes, building codes, heat meters, you name it. If it’s being built into today’s cityscape, it probably gathers data ("senses") and sends that information somewhere.

The goal is to use all this remotely gathered information to improve municipal services, making our cities "smart." Smart will require that we set the right rules for what is gathered and what is done with it.

10. Iterate

The dictionary tells us that iterate means to do again and again. In its buzzword guise, it is one of many design terms that has jumped the rhetorical fence, pulled along by related terms like "innovate," into philanthropy. Sexier than your grandmother’s pilot program, iterations mean trying something small, learning from it, and improving as you go along.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Artist as Philanthropist:

Artists see the future first.

Last time I went to the de Young Museum in San Francisco was to see the David Hockney exhibit that featured his room size paintings as well as his iPad paintings. Here's a great video interview with the painter about his ipad.
The idea of an artist - especially one as revered as Hockney - painting digitally (and emailing the results to his buddies) is intriguing to me. Especially from the perspective of the ownership questions that such digital creativity inspire.

(Photo from
This coming Saturday (December 6) I'm looking forward to another event at the de Young, this one on the role of artists as philanthropists. How artists create endowments from their work to further their reach is interesting in and of itself. Two particular facets stand out for me:
  • The Cy Twombly (a personal favorite of mine) Foundation just became the first $1 billion endowment. 
  • Digital strategies are playing an increasing role in the work of artist-endowed foundations, from platforms for public access to cultural materials and participation to frameworks for grants, meetings, and public impact. Christy MacLear of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation will address that point during the panel.
The panel will focus on research conducted by the Aspen Institute and look at how artists endowments are changing cultural philanthropy writ large. I'm particularly interested in learning more about the ways all of this is changing in the digital age. Info on the event is here. (It's free and open to the public)

And here's the report.

It's likely that artists' foundations will have lots to teach the rest of us about digital philanthropy.

The Nominet Trust 100 and Social Tech Guide 2014

What do cancer, cow fertility, and civil rights have in common? How about encrypted email, e-democracy, and educational access? Stumped? Here's one more - what about 3D printing, distributed networks of open source building plans, and privacy protecting search engines?

These, and 91 other issues, are areas where people from India to Iceland are combining software, hardware, and people power in new ways to tackle a shared social problem.

100 such ideas are being honored today by the Nominet Trust 100 and the Social Tech Guide. This a curated list of inspiring tech-enabled social good activities.The list and guide are like a "Wow - really?!" list of cool applications of software and hardware being put to use for social good. Proposals came from all over the world - 24 countries are represented among the final 100. The applications were curated first by staff and then judged by an external steering committee (me included).

This is the second year that the Nominet Trust and the Financial Times have curated the list and created the guide. Some of the winners are brand new, others have been around for awhile and have proven themselves. There's sure to be individual applications that make you think differently about your work. And taken as a whole, the list (along with last year's list) provide us with a starting inventory of "digital social innovation."

There's more information about the NT100 and digital social innovation in this year's Blueprint - available for free next Tuesday, December 9, at

Check out the #2014NT100 at

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Data ethics

This reading list from the Markulla Center on Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University is a great collection of materials covering ethical issues related to digital data. The articles do not specifically focus on civil society per se but they cover a lot of the questions about privacy, data ownership, consent, respect, and security that should be top of mind for foundations and nonprofits.

Here's the link to the reading list:

These issues were covered at our Ethics of Data conference back in September. Great to see attention and interest growing.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The values that guide us

Questions about civil society in the digital age are all I think about these days. Let me practice some of that thinking for you, if you have a minute...if not, let me wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving (USA and beyond).

Recently, there's been a lot of good writing about why we have philanthropic foundations. When I say "we" here, I mean us, the citizens of liberal democracies. My colleague Rob Reich's work, What are foundations for? and the articles written in response are must-reads. Gara LaMarche has an important perspective on Democracy and the Donor Class, especially given his experience running one of the nation's largest foundations for several years. Tom Watson adds some of his thinking at Forbes, including an interview with the founder of Inside Philanthropy. All of these articles point to pieces of the puzzle I'm trying to solve, but I still need us to step back a bit further.

Why do we have civil society? This weird space that's not fully about economic exchange or political governance? Michael Edwards, Bruce Sievers, and other scholars of civil society present many arguments for this space - sometimes called the independent sector, the nonprofit sector, the voluntary sector, social sector, or the third sector.

This space stands alongside, interdependent with the private and public sectors. An easy shorthand for thinking about the activities in each of these three is:
  • Private sector (markets): private resources for private benefit (an exchange between two people must benefit both)
  • Public sector (government): public resources for public benefit (tax revenue for schools, roads, armies)
  • Civil society: private resources for public benefit (we use our money, time, or other resources to benefit others)
But still, what is this space for? Why do we preserve (and provide incentives for) this space? I think it serves one overarching purpose in societies governed by majority democracies - it is the space to protect the rights of the rest of us. It's where we express ourselves (whether through art, ideological clusters, advocacy movements, or identity groups), it's where we protest (by taking to the streets or building a nearby playground when the city won't), and it's where we distribute services and goods that we value for non-economic or shared public reasons (such as a co-operative day care center, a shelter for abused spouses, food and shelter for those who can't afford them).

Let me break that down: expression, protest, and distribution.

Another feature of this space that is so familiar that we tend to no longer see it is that it is voluntary. Our actions in this space must be by choice, not compelled or obligated. Voluntary is even one of the aforementioned names for civil society. In internet parlance, voluntary means opt in. Without coercion. So a characteristic that shapes the space, in addition to its purposes above, is that we participate by choice and with decision making control over the resources used.

OK. So now I know what the space is for and the values that lie beneath all of the institutional, regulatory, and practices we've built up into civil society:
  • Free speech and expression
  • The right to assemble with others
  • Freedom from coercion (which includes being watched)
  • Choice
  • Clear rules on ownership*
One more thing. Democracies also rely on being able to see the rules and scrutinize the practices of those with power. Market exchanges also rely on information visibility. Civil society writ large provides some of that scrutiny on the other two sectors, and it needs to abide by standards of visibility and accountability.

Which leads me to the key areas for developing best practices for civil society in the digital age:
  • Free speech and expression
  • Assembly
  • Privacy
  • Consent 
  • Ownership
  • Transparency that enables scrutiny
We know what these words mean. But we don't have a full grasp on the practices that will enable these values in the digital age.

If you made it this far, thank you. And Happy Thanksgiving again.

*Read Sandy Pentland's New Deal on Data for insights on the importance of this question from a market perspective. Or you can watch the video.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Blueprint 2015 - coming soon!

Are you ready?

Blueprint 2015, my sixth (!) annual industry forecast, will be available from the GrantCraft website on December 10, 2014. With six of these under my belt I'm proud to say we've cycled through the primary colors (blue, red, yellow) and the secondary colors (green, orange, and now, purple).

What does the future hold? (Besides a shift to the tertiary level of the color wheel, that is). Find out on December 10th - buzzwords, predictions, my annual scorecard, and more.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Data trusts and data trust

Trust and integrity are key to nonprofits. They trade on these virtues. It's no accident that "Trusts" are the name for one type of nonprofit enterprise.  The defining aspect of the nonprofit corporate structure - the non-distribution clause relating to the use of financial assets - codifies the use of financial assets for mission, allowing the public to trust that the organization will be true to its social purpose.

In the 21st Century, nonprofits are going to need to engender that same kind of trust regarding their use of digital assets (otherwise known as digital data).

This is a tremendous opportunity for the sector. Earning and keeping the trust of all (data) donors  could become a defining quality for civil society organizations and help distinguish them from commercial enterprises and public agencies. Currently, many commercial operations and the government are treading lightly on the trust of their customers and constituents. Headlines from just this week:
Uber: "Whose Privacy will Uber Violate Next?"

Class Dojo: "Privacy Concerns for Class Dojo and Other Tracking Apps for Schoolchildren"
Government: Survey: US Adults feel they are losing control of their data
Nonprofits and philanthropy - all of civil society - should be using data in line with their missions and designing their organizational practices and policies with an eye toward earning, keeping, and sustaining the trust of the public. Good digital data governance policies will be key. There are early signs that "data trusts" will emerge as a new type of enterprise - but all civil society organizations should be working to maintain trust regarding data.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Philosophy Talk: Digital Activism

My laugh is not nearly as engaging as Tom Magliozzi's of Car Talk but I'll do my best on December 14 when I'll be talking about Digital Civil Society on Philosophy Talk. Here's the write up about the show:
“Cyber-Activism” with Lucy Bernholz
Whether it’s making donations and signing petitions online, or using
social media to highlight political causes, cyber-activism has never
been easier. With a few clicks, we can make our voices heard around
the globe. But who’s listening, and is anything actually changing?
Does cyber-activism mobilize real-world action on the ground? Or does
it reduce political engagement to simple mouse-clicking, and
ultimately threaten the subversive nature of change? John and Ken get
active with Lucy Bernolz, co-author of “Disrupting Philanthropy:Technology and the Future of the Social Sector.”
Tickets are available for the live show here.  If you're not in the Bay Area Philosophy Talk is hosted on public radio stations around the country and available on the web.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

New Power (or lessons for business from the social economy)


Henry Timms (founder of #givingtuesday and my colleague via Stanford PACS) and Jeremy Heimans have a new article in the December issue of Harvard Business Review called "Understanding New Power." In it they discuss characteristics such as co-ownership and participatory governance. They highlight some of the values of the new power that they call "opt in decision making" and "open source collaboration."

In the requisite 2 x 2 matrix (this is HBR after all) the precious terrain of the upper right hand quadrant includes a mix of movements (Occupy), nonprofits (Wikipedia), benefit corporations (Etsy), and commercial enterprises.

In other words, several of the institutional forms that constitute what we've been calling the social economy embody the characteristics and values that Timms and Heimanns pinpoint as a new type of power. Go read it - see what you think.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Apps and Ethics

I just got an alert from a trusted friend* to the existence of an app - Radar - which is designed to alert you if social media accounts start showing signs that your friends are in distress. The app is intended to help friends help friends in need. It was launched by a suicide crisis line in the UK called Samaritins.

But it's set off a (rightful) alarm about surveillance and privacy and algorithmic alerts. In order to work the app needs to constantly monitor all your accounts, be programmed to infer emotions from content, and alerts you if someone you follow is determined to be "in need." Problems abound - let's look at a few:
  1.  Not everyone who might follow you is necessarily your "friend." Many are probably bots. Worse, some may be stalkers.
  2. Algorithmic determination of emotional states? No question there - the risk of false positives or negatives seems rather high.   The app notes on it's own website that it's in beta - "and won't get it right every time." Suicidal ideation and social media apps full of trolls and troublemakers hardly seems like the place to take this chance.
  3. Constant monitoring of all the accounts you follow. Meaning that no consent is ever asked for from those whose accounts it's reading. And the app is storing data - does it need to?
I'm sure the app is well-intentioned. But practices around Privacy and Consent are precisely the issues that civil society organizations need to get right. This one seems to get them wrong.

*Thanks, Ben!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New questions for nonprofits and philanthropy

Among other things, the digital age is bringing us new kinds of nonprofits. I've been talking about this for several years, using examples of the Internet Archive, Mozilla, Creative Commons, and Wikimedia Foundation as "anchor institutions" of digital civil society. Each of these organizations is at least a decade old and each one exists to protect and promote some form of digital asset. If there weren't digital data and infrastructure, none of these nonprofits would (need to) exist.

There are other examples, newer ones, working on newer versions of shared social challenges in the digital age. One of those challenges is privacy. The founder of Privacy International announced today that he will launch a new organization, Code Red, in 2015 that is focused on protecting human rights advocates and whistleblowers in the digital age. This is an example of a social mission particular to the digital age.

Philanthropy is also challenged by attributes unique to the digital age. Take something like this effort to donate satellite imagery - How do we donate something and still own it, which is what happens with digital data? Who owns the data that get donated? is it really a donation or more of a loan? What are the licensing restrictions that will make sense for the donated data? Who is liable for a use of the data that puts someone in danger? These are all examples of questions that we've had answers to when it comes to donating time or money and we need new answers for donating data.

There are also new challenges for longstanding social sector organizations. Domestic violence is one area where the dangers of digital surveillance are keenly felt. There are tools custom built to facilitate stalking and off-the-shelf digital capacities (find my phone, for example) that make tracking people much easier.

What we're facing are questions of how to obtain the public benefit (new medical breakthroughs, new datasets that can inform poverty eradication efforts, whole new resources like up-to-date satellite imagery) of these digital tools without compromising or endangering people. I don't think the math behind this is going to be as simple as weighing one kind of benefit (public) against another (private) - it's going to be some form of multivariable calculus that includes issues of consent, ownership, liability, perpetuity, privacy, and security.

These are the questions that interest me. The ones that represent fundamental shifts in how civil society, nonprofits and philanthropy work. Much more interesting and important than the latest fundraising challenge on social media.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Three kinds of code

Imagine it's 1913. John D Rockefeller has gone to the U.S. Congress to charter an innovative new philanthropic enterprise. He's been turned down. He turns instead to the State of New York, which says yes, and the modern philanthropic foundation as an enterprise form is born.

(OK, so I left all the juicy bits out of that story but you get the point)

2014 and beyond is the same moment for philanthropy. We need to invent the new enterprises that will carry civil society forward in the coming century, an age which will be defined by digital connectivity (data and infrastructure). As Rockefeller wanted a new enterprise form to manage a resource (money) for good (philanthropic giving) at scale we need to be similarly creative. We need three kinds of code:
  1. Software code
  2. Organizational code
  3. Legal code
The software code will need to default to the values of civil society (free association, private action, protest and dissent) not the values of government or business. This can be seen in efforts as different as DuckDuckGo and the Martus Project of Benetech.

Organizational codes will include terms of service, data management policies and privacy settings that align with the values and mission of the organization. They won't be cut and pasted from commercial web services and they will be as representative of an association's mission as are it's corporate charter or bylaws. You can see examples of policy and practices codified to represent core values at

Organizational code will also take the form of common practices for sharing data safely across sectors. Data philanthropy will come to mean something specific, with consent, liability, ownership, and value issues explained rather than assumed.

Legal code will come. We can either inform it or fight it, but it's naive to assume that our legal structures for using digital resources will stay as they've been.  The change might come in response to scandal or damage done or it might come as regulators step up to proactively protect vulnerable people from unscrupulous ones. This may take many forms. It might be data privacy standards such as recently enacted in many US states regarding student data or, as Rockefeller imagined 100 years ago, it could be a new type of enterprise to manage a new resource at scale. It could be new requirements for data governance built into corporate code or it might be something akin to a whole new form of enterprise - data co-ops or benefit corporations built around data.

Together these three codes should embody the values that make civil society vital parts of democracies. These values may not always be exclusive of those that matter to the public or private sector, but we are wrong to assume that the defaults of business or government are also the defaults of the independent associational space where we choose privately to act publicly.

At the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford PACS we'll be working on all three. Having spent the last months traveling to Australia, Canada, China, and the UK,  meeting people at the Ethics of Data Conference, and connecting with research partners looking at digital social innovation around the world for the upcoming Blueprint 2015, I feel confident in saying these are global issues and we need global partners. I also feel confident in thinking that those partners are out there.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nonprofits and Cybersecurity

Today's New York Times reveals that the folks who hacked the website of JP Morgan Chase, one of the world's largest banks, also hacked the website and account of the bank's affiliated charity arm - the Chase Corporate Challenge.

In July, GoodWill Inc announced that hackers had accessed information on payments processed by the nonprofit employment program.

Waaaaay back in 2007 hackers breached the security systems at Convio Inc., gaining access to donor information for more than 90 charitable organizations.

Universities have long been, and in 2014 seemed to grow as, a target for cybersecurity breaches.

I'm sure that hospital systems, not-for-profit health care providers, non-profit financial firms, and even philanthropic foundations are also tempting targets.

Why does this matter? In the Chase Corporate Challenge case it appears that hackers were looking for a way into the bank via the nonprofit portal. (NYT says that didn't work. In this case.) In other cases the stash of information - on donors and their financial information - may be tempting enough on its own. For those with malicious means beyond financial interests, accessing information on program participants or program beneficiaries or activities planned may be enough - especially for organizations doing politically, religiously, or culturally sensitive work.

All of this steals the thunder from one of my intended Blueprint 2015 predictions, that hacking, cybersecurity and nonprofits would rise to public attention next year. (Just came on earlier than I thought). 

Cybersecurity and protecting the digital information that nonprofits collect and store is important on the organizational level. It's also important on a systems level. Collectively, given the capacity constraints for most nonprofits and the linked nature of digital data, information breaches from individual organizations can serve as open doors to breaches across organizations and whole sectors. The limited ability of nonprofits to protect information they gather online - even when they outsource the service to third party vendors (who struggle to stay in front of malicious hackers) - makes not just the nonprofits and foundations vulnerable but also their affiliates and partners.

security experts can will tell you what to do to protect your web and digital assets. I think about this more from the programmatic and human side. Too often I see foundations and nonprofits choosing to collect information from people just because they can. It's easy to ask for addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, even when you don't need them and may not know why you would use them. It's easy (and cheap) to store that information somewhere online. And it's easy to forget about it.

We need to shift our organizational mindsets about collecting information from those we serve. We should stop  thinking about information collection as an "all you can eat buffet," where the ease, speed and price of collecting and storing is so low that "more is better." Commercial websites have habituated us to assuming that we have to trade our data (address, birth date, email, phone number and so on) for access.  That's a value exchange and a type of transaction that nonprofits simply don't need to perpetuate.

Any organization that doubts its ability to ensure that it can protect your digital information (i.e. ALL honest organizations) should approach the collection of information with great care. Given our human propensity to re-use passwords we should even consider whether requiring passwords for public access to nonprofit websites makes any sense. Our users will most likely use the same password they use everywhere else, we won't be able to protect it, and - oops - there goes that breach. Rather than the "all you can eat buffet" approach to user information, let's shift to "don't let your eyes be bigger than your stomach." In other words - don't ask for what you don't need. That way, you won't need to worry about having it and losing it. (Or being subpoenaed for it - more on that elsewhere)

Nonprofits bank on trust and integrity. We need to shift our digital behaviors to reflect this when it comes to collecting, storing (and possibly losing) information from those with whom we work.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Data, Work, and the Social Sector

(photo from

Organizations that support nonprofits in the U.S. are quick to point out the contribution these organizations make to the economy. $1 trillion in assets, $2 trillion in revenue, 10% of jobs or GDP - the economic impact of the sector is used as evidence for all kinds of arguments. 

The data behind these numbers, and the methods for calculating them, have typically come from government filings of labor statistics, tax records, contracts, and charitable giving and are crunched by research institutes, scholars, and advocacy groups.

Like every other sector, there are new data sources coming online that may add to our understanding of the social sector. Today, LinkedIn announced its EconomicGraph Challenge - an opportunity to use the company's data on jobs and job openings to ask new research questions. This is exciting and I hope a good number of researchers jump in to ask new questions (or add the data to existing research projects) about the social sector.

Some things I'd like to know:
  • What's the turnover rate of people working in nonprofits?
  • How do salaries really compare for jobs with similar titles in nonprofit, commercial and public settings?
  • What can we learn about professional "sector hopping?" What patterns can be seen in how people move from nonprofit to commerce to public sector jobs (and back) over time?
  • How long do nonprofit chief executives hold their jobs?
  • What professional profiles are nonprofits looking for in terms of board members (LinkedIn for Good facilitate volunteer openings)
  • What might these data show about volunteering, interning, and getting a paid position?
  • How do jobs and job titles compare across countries?
  • What do these data show us about organizational structures around the globe?
  • What types of networks can we see between specific nonprofits and specific universities?
  • What types of networks can we see between board members of nonprofits and companies? (or nonprofits and government agencies?)
  • What skills are nonprofits actually hiring for? 
  • Can we predict skills gaps from these data? Can we identify educational and job training opportunities?
  • What questions do you have?
The LinkedIn Challenge is an an example of the emergent phenomenon of "data philanthropy." This is the practice of giving access to specific data sets for specific purposes (in contrast to opening data sets for broad unrestricted use. This will come to bear on the same types of nonprofit research above when government contracting and grants data goes open). Corporate-owned data becoming more available to the social sector (and about the social sector) is one element of digital civil society that we're thinking about at the Digital Civil Society Lab. The policies and practices by which the data are shared and the ethical challenges of making these data sets available for research are the issues of greatest interest to the Lab itself.

I'm hopeful that lots of research proposals will flow in that will put LinkedIn's data to use to better understand what work is in the social sector and how the social sector works.

Proposals for the research are due by December 15. Details are here. Challenge rules are here.  I am not affiliated with LinkedIn or its challenge. I'm encouraging students and researchers at Stanford (and, via this blog posts, anywhere else) to consider the challenge.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Ten Innovations in Global Philanthropy

Thrilled to see this new report from New Philanthropy Capital - Ten Innovations in Global Philanthropy.*

(photo and report:

One of my partners in the upcoming Blueprint 2015 - betterplace lab - is featured as one of the innovations. Check out their incredible work from the lab around the world - and be sure to get the Blueprint 2015 (Free from Grantcraft) when it goes live in December.

Also very proud to see PoweredByData from on the list. I've been saying all year that Canada is the world leader when it comes to using open data for philanthropy and nonprofits. Be sure to check out their work.

On the transparency side the NPC authors chose Glasspockets from The Foundation Center. A great example and worth a look.

Be sure to get the report.

*Full disclosure: I was one of many people interviewed for the report, but had no role in writing, vetting, choosing, producing.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Ethics of Data Conference - First Quick Summary

The #Eod14 Conference was a huge success. Thanks to all who participated. We're still decoding, transcribing, and following up so a more formal synthesis is still to come. But in the meantime:

The conference encouraged real work. One and one-half days of small group sessions, filled with the 100 participants, yielded (at least) the following: 

   The curriculum for a class on building trust in conflict situations being taught at Stanford this quarter
   A "responsibility for harm" checklist
   A framing document on different types of consent - (being carried forward by
            Responsible Data Forum and others)
   A prototype for analyzing the ethics of algorithms
   A 24 month "urgent issues" idea set
   A research agenda (the Digital Civil Society Lab will move some of this forward)
   At least one book proposal
(the Digital Civil Society Lab will try to help move this forward)
   Specific opportunities for commercial data firms to develop consistent policies for
            sharing data with researchers and nonprofits  
   Mock-up for nonprofit Terms of Service agreements to align with their missions
(being carried forward by Responsible Data Forum and others)
   Two(!) draft codes of ethics for data in civil society
   A set of tools for making ethical decisions across the data lifecycle
   A data "badger" for ethical management of data in civil society
   A matrix for locating use cases within and across sectors
   A process for data scientists and nonprofits to articulate and document
            the ethical choices they made in building apps, making visualizations or analyzing
            data sets
   100 people from universities, nonprofits, policymaking, and a variety ofdigital data/media companies creating 100! new relationships 

The actual materials will be shared in a variety of ways, including here and on the conference website

Blog Posts by Participants

Heather Leson

Christopher Wilson

Summary document on conference (forthcoming)

If I missed something, let me know. More soon!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Apple's Watch and the Ethics of Data

Apple made big news this week with the announcement of its new phones with mobile payment built in and it's new watch, which seems to be a platform for everything from telling you the time to heartbeat sharing (?!)

Much has been written by privacy experts, tech geeks, health policy wonks, and financial gurus about all the new stuff this new OS and device are bringing.

Personally, I appreciated the Cupertino company's doing such a fabulous job of sending a signal that  digital civil society has arrived. (And just in time for our conference on the Ethics of Data - how perfect!)

Here's the signal, in case you missed it. Apple made a big deal about how it can protect your private financial and health data, which the watch and phone will help you collect and manage. They explained how the phone/watch will/will not store your data, how it can be shared, and who will have access to it.

The following language is from Apple's own developer guide - (the rules of the road for the people creating the apps that will make the watch do more than its Casio forebears)
"27.4 Apps may not use user data gathered from the HealthKit API for advertising or other use-based data mining purposes other than improving health, medical, and fitness management, or for the purpose of medical research (emphasis added)"
My question? Medical research by whom? Harvard? (nonprofit) The Centers for Disease Control? (government) Pfizer? (Commercial company) Citizen scientists in their garages? (none of the above)

Medical research is done by businesses, government, and nonprofits. They each operate under separate rules. Some have clear institutional structures and review processes for doing research on humans. Some make sure they have your consent to be included in a study or a publicly reported "finding," others, well not so much.

The New York Times read the above developer guide and interpreted it as if reserving use of the data for medical research was in some ways protecting our privacy. From their Thursday story:
"Apple has made it clear to developers of health apps that it wants to protect privacy. Last week, it updated its guidelines for app developers, stating that apps working with HealthKit, Apple’s new set of tools for tracking fitness and health statistics, may not use the personal data gathered for advertising or data-mining uses other than for helping manage an individual’s health and fitness, or for medical research."
But here's the thing - letting the data be used for "medical research" without specifying by whom and under what conditions doesn't protect you in the least.

It's like saying only "book lenders" will have information about your reading habits. Book lenders include your local library, which has been protecting reader information from prying eyes for decades, and Amazon, which uses your data...differently.

The point is we have different expectations for different kinds of organizations - public, commercial, and not-profit - and we hold them, socially and legally, to different standards of transparency, accountability, and trust. Data cross all those lines (and those lines are already rather blurry). As they celebrated in Cupertino, it's clear that we have entirely new tools for collecting, storing, and sharing our data. We need new rules - especially if we want to maintain the trust and integrity of the nonprofit sector.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Why focus on civil society and data?

This is the third of a three-part series leading up to the Ethics of Data in Civil Society Conference at Stanford on September 15-16.

Big data and government. Big data and business. Big data and consumers.
Why are we focused on data and civil society?

First, what is civil society? This is a question that scholars can debate for years, so let's shortcut that and use this definition - "Civil society is where we use our private resources (money, time, data) to benefit a public (someone other than ourselves))."

In many places (including the U.S), the nonprofit sector and philanthropy are often used as a synonym for civil society - this is only partly true because civil society includes all those informal networks, neighborhood groups, beach cleanups, and online volunteering efforts that we do - all those mutually beneficially, associational activities that take place all over the world (and, increasingly, all over the Internet). Yes, civil society includes these institutions, but it is much more.

So why focus on the role of data and ethics? I could do the usual economic argument here and tell you about the size of nonprofits and philanthropy, the number of people employed in the sector, the trillions of dollars in revenue and assets and so on, and those numbers are big and impressive.

But the real reason to focus on digital data and ethics runs much deeper than contributions to the GDP. It has to do with the intended role of civil society in a democracy. Here's how we've been breaking this thinking down at the Digital Civil Society Lab (Part of Stanford PACS and one of the hosts of the conference):
  1.  Civil society is essential to democracy
  2. Private action for public benefit (civil society) requires that individuals can act independently – apart from government or the marketplace – and voluntarily – free from coercion (freedom of association)
  3. Civil society also depends on the permission to speak and communicate freely, to broadcast one’s views both internally to other associational members and externally to other citizens (freedom of speech).
  4. Our world is getting more digital – networks of digitized data undergird more and more of our communications and connections and more of our analog assets are being digitized (text, video, audio, DNA, physical objects)
  5. We are in a transition period where civil society actions are adapting digital tools and practices and where digital innovators are creating tools with civil society purposes – “the social is going digital and the digital is going social.”
  6. We need to see if and how the digital environment is affecting or altering the rights and abilities of individuals to voluntarily act privately for the public good; to consider the mechanisms for valuing, owning, and donating digital assets; and consider the governance, organizational, and policy implications of this sphere.
Given the ethical dilemmas raised by digital data in all aspects of our lives, a focused inquiry on the implications for civil society is a timely complement to the research and policy considerations in business and government.