Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Ethics, data, mission and revenue

I just finished a three part series on digital values and civil society. We'll have to call this post part 3.5.

As I did so, I was (slightly) relieved to see that the Chronicle of Philanthropy raised an ethical eyebrow at the growing practice of nonprofits' selling data and digital data rights in their link to this story from The Philadelphia Inquirer.*

This is a great example of the ethical conundrums facing nonprofits in the digital age. Gather and sell people's data? Nothing new in that business model - it's been working ridiculously well for social media giants and search companies for more than a decade now (works great for data brokers also).
  • Why should or shouldn't nonprofits sell data from those they work with? 
  • When should they do it? 
  • Under what conditions? 
  • Is there any nonprofit/mission-driven special privilege or pass or encouragement we want to endorse where this practice is involved? 
  • If there are special conditions for nonprofits or mission-based businesses what are they and who's going to monitor adherence to those conditions? 
  • And if there are not special conditions for nonprofit enterprises regarding their use of this resource, why are they nonprofits?
Please consider how the logic behind your answer regarding data for pharmaceutical research (as examined in the story) extend (or not) to other types of data, because it's more than physiological information that gets shared, it's also demographic, geographic, and other identifying information.

Some data may have real public value. Since many of us gladly (unknowingly? with reservations?) exchange our data for free 2-day shipping, the exchange of data for life-saving medical breakthrough may well be worth it? How can we value these exchanges? Make them more visible? And what spectrum of rights might we want regarding how we protect and how we share our data and for what purposes?

Got an answer to these questions for your nonprofit or your foundation? Great. If so, you are way ahead of the rest of the sector, which is still writing ethical codes that ignore the value and challenges of digital data.

*In the same issue the Chronicle is running an ongoing series of "he said, she saids" about "tech for good." It's not about how many drones, how many 3D printers, or who uses bitcoin - it's about purpose, respect, accountability, and with what limits and rights we pursue digital opportunities to achieve our missions. But at least the Chronicle stories engage different viewpoints about digital - instead of acting like it's not there.

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