Friday, July 24, 2015

When what was new becomes old

Alliance Magazine published my article,  From the Edge to the Middle, a few months ago and has now made it available for free to everyone.


Monday, July 20, 2015

(what if) we are not alone


Today's headlines are bursting with announcements of Yuri Milner's $100 million gift in search of alien life. Professor Hawking (pictured above) accompanied Mr. Milner when he made the announcement.

Let's suppose this philanthropic grant is effective. The scientists find extraterrestrial intelligent life.  Does the fact that the search was philanthropically-funded matter?

Does Mr. Milner get first dibs on meeting our new neighbors?
Do the UC scientists get to negotiate international(galactic) diplomatic ties?
Do all the citizen scientists who've been donating their computing power to @SETI at home get first dibs on space travel vouchers to the exoplanets?
Are there naming rights at stake?

To their credit, the funders and scientists are making all of the data from the Breakthrough Listen project open and available to any person interested. Which is right-on from the perspective of humans, but assumes that "aliens" don't mind having their conversations shared with everyone on our planet. 

(I don't know why this struck me. Just because.)

Good luck to the astronomers, engineers, and home scientists.

Friday, July 17, 2015


(photo credit: ISP)
[This is not an "anti-data, anti-measurement" screed. This is a plea to "understand the data."]

What do you do when the data sources you are looking at indicate that there are more black men in prison than there are alive? If you are Becky Pettit, Sociologist at University of Washington, you write a book called Invisible Men.

If you are in nonprofits, community organizations, foundations, or a citizen of the world - you should #QuestionTheData. When the data don't make sense,  ask how is such a thing possible? Who is doing the data collection? What are they looking for? What are they counting? What are they not counting? Who are they missing?

In our age of data we all need greater data literacy. We need to #QuestionTheData. We need to understand that data are "man made" - they are socially constructed by those who are collecting them. We need to abandon the belief that data are objective and somehow "natural" and recognize that they are useful and constructed.

Here's some old tropes that - when taken out of their intended contexts - highlight the interplay between data and purpose and should inspire us to question all data and all data sources.
  • You can't manage something if you can't measure it. 
  • What gets measured, matters.
  • Not everything that matters can be measured.  
Taken together those tropes point to the intentions behind certain data collection practices (management), the implications of measuring some things (some things don't get measured), and the challenge of turning every worthwhile objective into quantifiable metrics (or data). The tropes are meant to inspire the use of measurement and data, and I'm all for that, as long as we're also trying to be clear on what we're doing, what the data are, what they are not, and what else is needed to make sense.

The Open Knowledge Foundation's new paper on Democratising the Data Revolution gets to the heart of what civil society needs to be doing in the age of big data. Boiling down their report to a bumper sticker, I propose #QuestionTheData.

Download Democratising the Data Revolution here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Monday, July 13, 2015

Minimum viable data collection

I worked for the federal government for several months in 1989. Along with at least 21,499,999 other people information that can be used to identify me (and as me) was stolen from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. I held up the letter I'd received about this while giving a speech recently (hard copy, put it back in my pocket immediately) and several people in an audience of foundation and media professionals nodded and raised their hands. They'd received the same letter.

Government, hacked. Big companies (Sony, Target, etc), hacked. Health insurers, hacked. 

Nonprofits and foundations - really? You think you can protect our info? I don't. Individually and collectively I think you lack the resources, the skills, the financial capacity, and, sadly, probably, the knowledge and the will.

So, please, reconsider your collection policies.

What do you really need to collect? From whom and why? What are you using it for? What information proxies might you use instead? Can you store the info offline (disconnected from the Internet). Can you destroy it, please, after you've used it?

Can you answer the evaluation questions you have and attain the program improvement you seek and create datasets with research and policy value without collecting information that can be triangulated back to identify individuals? Without collecting any personally identifiable information (PII)? Really? I bet you can. At the very least, I bet we can all do much better at this than we have been.

If we think hard and creatively about it I bet we can have both - the answers we seek and the privacy we are ethically obligated to provide. The privacy we seek to respect is also a precursor to the "open" we claim to want.

Tech start ups and design engineers love to talk about "minimum viable product." This means getting the most basic functionality out to the public and in use as fast as you can. This reflects the value they place on feedback, iteration, and moving fast toward market share.

In civil society, our approach should reflect a different set of values. Seeking public benefit while respecting private choice. This calls for a different approach - "minimum viable data collection."

Let's do it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Random thought on #data governance and social good

Given the nature of digital #data (generative, remixable, scalable, storable, copyable, etc) it's hard to see how the current nonprofit corporate governance structures provide much assurance that these assets will be used for good. Nonprofit corporations must dedicate "excess" financial assets to their mission, what about their digital data assets?

Here are some models of practice from existing institutions that manage assets with some similarities to digital data:

- libraries (lending copies)
- loan funds (revolving resource)
- blood banks (donors regenerate what they donate)
- museums (perpetual conservation)
- trusts (intergenerational transfer)
- commons (participatory and constituent-based)

Just thinkin' out loud.

Can you think of others?

Friday, July 10, 2015

What do the data really show? Where should we draw the lines?

My colleague Rob Reich and I have been writing about the social economy for several years now.

My Blueprint series - heading into its 7th year - changed its name to focus on the social economy in its 2nd year (2011). The basic point of the social economy frame was to shift people's myopic focus on nonprofits and foundations to the much more complicated, and interesting, set of dynamics that is at work in our communities.  Both commercial and nonprofit organizations (as well as co-ops, collectives, informal networks and other organizations) provide social and environmental benefits. We need to consider the whole economy, and its intersections and interactions, to really see where "good comes from."

Two books out from University of Toronto provide some data on the social economy in Canada and in the United States. I hope these authors will continue to track these data. In the Fall I hope to begin helping a team in Brazil try to make some sense of that country's social economy, with particular attention to civic engagements and democratic participation.

It's likely that these changes are not happening uniformly across all of the "verticals" in which nonprofits have worked in the past.
  • The arts, for example, has long been a robust mixed economy of cultural organizations, movie studios, indie films, public broadcasting, informal street art, underground collectives, and other stuff. Health care is such a strange mix of nonprofit and for-profit that a New Jersey judge recently ruled nonprofit hospitals a "legal fiction."
  • This article on breast milk banks in Oregon caught my eye. There's a service I knew little about. 
  • Recent research on hospice care also documents how those services morphed over several decades from the purview of hippy-dippy, new agey nonprofits to a $17 billion industry full of private-equity owned commercial conglomerates. 
  • I just had a great conversation with a civic tech friend who introduced me to the messy mix of commercial and nonprofit vendors working with public data and selling platforms back to governing agencies. 
  • We've heard a lot lately about for-profit colleges, which enrolled more than 20% of all American college students in 2011.  
It would be very helpful if we had data that could show how this was playing out in individual industries, by geography, and nationally (internationally).

What other issue areas, business or service verticals do you know of that are a dynamic or surprising mix of nonprofit and commercial services? Where do you get the data to track them?

Thursday, July 09, 2015

The Future of (Nonprofit) Work

(Photo: U-M Library Digital Collections. Political Posters, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan. Accessed: July 09, 2015.)
I'm thinking a lot about what it will mean to work (at nonprofits, for social good, in social movements, for the benefit of others) as I set my mind to Blueprint 2016.

I'm also preparing for a very cool Stanford PACS Digital Civil Society Lab charrette on Greater Employee Engagement, looking at corporations as possible test beds for more informed giving, data-driven philanthropy, data philanthropy, etc. We're working with several major corporations and some foundations to pull this together. If you have thoughts or resources to share, let me know. And keep an eye out for a follow up on that via @Stanfordpacs.

Here's a random collection of what's been making me think:

All the stuff on robots:
This series in the Atlantic drawing from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's Race against the Machine. And this on A world Without Work.

Mitchell Kutney's piece on charity industry  + robots

Robots and wages

"Weird" working that's already happening
Volunteers at For-profits firms
Everything written about what to call the people who drive the ubers, rent out the Airbnbs, and rabbit the tasks. Especially this from James Surowiecki.

Things I've learned from the Talent Philanthropy Project, reflections on leadership of #blacklivesmatter and other social movements.

Other stuff
Constant Tinder-esque monitoring of worker happiness

Tech trend guru and conference sponsor Tim O'Reilly's new series on the WTF economy

@zeynep's terrific piece on the software (that sucks) that connects everything, and a twitter response that asked "so why do the folks who write the software make so much money?"

I've got a whole Evernote notebook/Zotero library full of other stuff related to work, work and life, work and tech, work and philanthropy....So now it's time to do the hard part, the thinking.

What is the future of doing work that helps other people? Nonprofit work? (What should we even call it?)

What do you think? What else do I need to read?

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

State of Civil Society 2015

Civicus has released its annual State of Civil Society Report for 2015 - the full download is here.

I'm proud to have contributed an essay on digital civil society - the first such analysis I believe. Here's a teaser:
"Digital data and infrastructure are core mechanisms for public discourse, fundamental elements of public utility, and instrumental to civil rights, information access, medical care, innovation, education and countless other dimensions of modern life. ...

Six fundamental principles of civil society are being remade in the digital age. These are:
  1. Free speech and expression
  2. Peaceful assembly
  3. Privacy 
  4. Consent
  5. Ownership
  6. Public accountability
Putting these principles into action digitally will be the context for and shape of civil society to come."
 And here's the download to my full essay.

On a related note, I am late to the work of John Scalzi, the near future science fiction writer, but I will be doing my best to consume all of his novels by the end of the summer. I just read Lock In in one evening. If you want to read a fictional take on the year 2030 and a thriller concerning an-eerily- and-easily-imaginable version of peaceful assembly, privacy, disability rights, human rights, democracy, and politics, I highly recommend it.