Monday, August 18, 2014

A new calculus for civil society

In the analog era, when you took action for social good the math was relatively straightforward;
                                 1 action = some result.

It might have been a 1:1 relationship: 1 donation = 1 meal.

It might have been more than that: 1 volunteer act = multiple additional donations = multiple benefits

It might have included a multiplier effect: Action sustained over time = new policies = multiple benefits

It might have backfired: 1 action = negative result

What it didn't have, and part of what makes digital action different, is a "digital differential."

Here's what I mean. In the digital environment, every action creates a digital trail - data, metadata or both. So if you click to like the ALS Ice Bucket challenge (for example, to be au courant) your click supports ALS research.  It also tells your friends you care about ALS (or that you are very much in the know), it also adds to the dataset of information about you that is being built by several enterprises and held in several places, and it also adds to the dataset of the ALS campaign.

Your single click becomes a digital data point with lots of potential other uses (marketing, donation solicitation, friendship building). One action = lots of derivative uses and interpretations, some by you, most by others.

This digital differential is true for all digital data. Our actions in digital space create an additional "resource" (data) that can be used in lots of ways. These digital differentials may be used for positive or negative actions. What happens with them is not inherent in the data, it will depend on what we do with the data and how we do it.

CrisisTextLine is a great example of this. It helps crisis counseling centers reach teens via text. In the analog age (last year) when this was done by phone, the math was straightforward:

ANALOG: 1 call = 1 teen helped.

Today, the math is different:

DIGITAL: 1 text message = 1 teen helped + a dataset of digital text messages (with more than 3 million records to-date).

This is one way (there are others) that digital changes the calculus of civil society.

What do you do with that dataset? How do you protect it and the rights of the people represented within it? CrisisTextLine hopes to make it useful to scholars and policymakers. You can see their work - and their ethical decisionmaking, struggles, and open questions about this here.* The upcoming Ethics of Data conference will look at these questions and many others in a broader civil society context. Some of the thinking on data philanthropy also addresses these issues.

*At the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford, we held a charrette around CTL's work - because their opportunities and challenges are all of ours, they're willing to share them publicly and ask for help, and we all stand to learn a great deal from what they are trying to do and how they are trying to do it.

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