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.

1 comment:

Gena Rotstein said...

In addition to what you point out about how do we collect the data to be used to help people, and then ensure the data stays protected, we also need to address the legacy of the data. How does it get passed down? What happens if a non-profit/charitable organization that collects that information for the purposes of developing a new service, advocating a new policy or creating and new product goes out of business or merges... who owns that data then? Does it become part of the "general charitable sector?" Assuming it is part of the asset base what rules should/could be applied to protect the integrity (not technical but social) of the data?

Thank you again for sharing your insights.