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.

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