Thursday, February 25, 2016

It's the data, stupid (note to self)

Last Friday I was part of the International Data Responsibility Group's second conference where I heard incredible examples of how the World Food Programme is using data to guide its work feeding people in conflict zones and thought long and hard about data collaboratives and the possibility of data philanthropy.

On Saturday I read about the ways Russia is targeting attacks on human rights and aid-related NGOs' digital systems in Syria.

On Monday, I participated in an incredible seminar on crowdsourcing and public decision making, partly organized around Beth Noveck's book - Smart Citizens, Smarter State.

On Wednesday, I heard Kevin Carey discuss his book, The End of College, which looks at the economic opportunities that digital tools bring to higher education. It only hints at how the digital data generated in those environments will become a key resource and point of contention between schools, students, employers, regulators, researchers, and teachers.

Today, I pushed forward in my attempts to convene scholars of crowd (sourcing and funding) - or what we're calling CrowdX - from across the Stanford campus, in disciplines as diverse as civil engineering and business, social algorithms and democracy theory.

I also read that the charges that Airbnb "cooked its data books" in releasing information to New York regulators hold up.  It took intrepid journalists to demonstrate this to the public and to regulators - and to get the company to fess up.

And, of course, like many people I am absorbed in the legal, ethical, and democratic arguments unfolding between the FBI and Apple.

All of these disparate events raise concerns about privacy, publicness, and data. But the one issue that I think they all raise - that has actionable, policy-related implications for philanthropy and civil society - is this:
  1. What data must be made public (and auditable) by platforms that facilitate public services (transportation, shelter, funding charitable or public goods)?
We require public businesses, nonprofits and foundations to report on their activities. This information provides some form of accountability, is helpful in fighting fraud, and - in the aggregate - provides a critical lens into the state of our economy, our social sector, and our democracy.

So, what data do we need access to, as a public, to understand, oversee, and yes, audit, platform companies that facilitate transactions that meet the same criteria of public interest. They may be charitable in nature, public good supporting, or mutual aid related.

Setting the bar at its lowest - shouldn't we at least have access to the same information from these platforms that we would gather were the transactions happening in some other way? Why would the platforms - even as proprietary as they are - be given a pass on reporting data on transactions that we'd otherwise publicly report? And, given their own self-touted role in a "big data" economy, setting the bar that low seems, well, practically analog and 20th century.

We're working on this question.  We don't yet have answers (although here are some ideas).  We do know the answer is not "nothing, trust us." And we do know that the getting the answer right matters to - and depends on - the active participation of existing institutions in civil society and philanthropy.

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