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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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PHILANTHROPY 2173 - Data Philanthropy
Lucy Bernholz

June, 2012

Yesterday I posted a brain dump on how data can change philanthropy. (I hope you'll add to that list of ideas. Feel free to put real examples up as well) 

But the real change coming from data is much bigger - because it's everything in that post and more. Data are reshaping our associational life. Our associations - neighborhood groups, nonprofits, mutual aid organizations, temporal networks - are how we use private resources (time, wisdom) for public (collective) good. Philanthropy is one way we participate in associational life with private money. We are beginning to see half-step change in philanthropies participating in associational life with data. 

Here's the half-step practice change
Data need to be seen as both an input and output of philanthropic dollars and institutions. The dollars are limited. The information they create and can catalyze can be re-used and re-applied over and over (if let loose into the world with that intention). 

If foundations really valued data as an input, they'd rethink their grants management departments. These data experts wouldn't just deal with compliance issues, they'd be unleashed on relevant external data sets that matter to the foundation's program strategies. They'd be let loose to map, crunch, remix public data sets, peer data sets, industry data sets that would be used by program officers to develop their funding strategies. Grants management isn't just compliance, its strategy and learning. They'd partner with program and evaluation staff to make teams with data, domain, and grantmaking expertise, as well as appropriate external networks to assess and validate internal ideas. They'd be part of building the learning cycles and tools that would keep the grants meaningful and the foundation catalytic, not just compliant. They'd lead the charge in re-inventing evaluation at foundations, a process that data, shared data systems anddata software will accelerate. 

If foundations really valued data as an output, they'd rewrite their grant agreements and contracting language. Creative Commons or other public re-use licensing would be the norm not the exception. Sharing data sets produced by philanthropic dollars (in machines readable form) would be standard practice (as would be the real-time publishing of grants data). Foundations would promote, experiment with,  and build communities around their data and their grantees data - they would structure their grants to produce and release data for others - designing the grants from the beginning for the multiplying effect of the data products (and the open source tools to make sense of the data). 

What if philanthropic investments were designed to supply data into a data commons? What if philanthropy took on public access to data as one element of civil society? What if we provided incentives for the open sharing of knowledge and data in the regulatory streams that guide philanthropy? 

Here's a full-step practice change: 
To me, the most exciting development in philanthropy right now is the spread of data philanthropy.  Data philanthropy asRobert Kirkpatrick of Global Pulse views it, is when big BIG DATA companies (telecomms, search engines, social networks) donate their public use data (privacy rights protected, opt in only) to a data commons. If more foundations and private companies (Data CSR?) did this we'd be able to start addressing shared social and humanitarian goals in the same way we now work on developing viral advertising. As The Economist recently noted:  "It's now remarkably easy to share data around the world, mine massive data sets for interesting relationships, test those relationships with powerful statistical software, and publish and share results with audiences the world over, all in a matter of hours." Shouldn't we be thinking this way about hunger, global warming, migration routes, poverty, and education? Here's what Kirkpatrick describes Global Pulsetrying to do

"...analysis of patterns within big data could revolutionize the way we respond to events such as global economic shocks, disease outbreaks, and natural disasters. Our team of data scientists, open source hackers, and international development experts functions the way an R&D lab does: asking questions, formulating and testing hypotheses, building prototypes and collaborating with partners within and outside the United Nations to develop methods for harnessing real-time data to gain a real-time understanding of human well being."

We need to think about the "common good" of aggregated data - in economics, health care, environmental justice, land use policy, education - you name it. The bipolar data system we are developing - data either owned by companies or governments or solely owned and not shared by individuals  - leaves nothing in the commons. The rights of the individual - their ownership of their data and the privacy rights to make decisions about it- are critical. We are new to this digital landscape - and would be naive to assume that today's tools will be tomorrow's, that businesses have individuals' best interests at heart, or that we, as individuals can't shape our associational life online to meet our own, and our collective (non market, non government) best interests. But we have to be intentional about it. Doc Searls' new book - The Intention Economy - makes this clear from an individual point of view. (Here are Ethan Zuckerman's notes on the book). 

Here's the full-scale change that reconsiders the frames of operation: 
There is still a larger shift underway. Data and digital exchange have shifted the bounds of organizations. Lee Rainie argue that networked individuals - not groups (families, workplaces, associations) are the organizing force in this environment. And individuals create alliances, move among multiple associations, and create new relationships over the course of their lives. 

Many in the commons movement (along with thinkers and doers about open government, digital ownership, the sharingeconomy, free press, public libraries, net neutrality, the electronic frontier -) have been leading the thinking is how do we want to associate digitally - what new rules do we want or need around sharing our data, using it for collective problem solving, what new structures, what new revenue streams, and what new governance. Our history is shaped by an active associational sector - influencing, not just responding to, markets and governments. We need this same intention when it comes to digital spheres. We need to think about what data we are willing to share to solve shared social problems, how we will share these data, how we will use them, and how we will get them back. 

Just ss our forebears designed our current associational systems, we need to define a space for networked private individuals to create public goods in the digital age. Just as we've defined and protected an independent sector in the analog world, we need to provide a voice for the commons when it comes to using private data for public good. Our existing nonprofits and foundations can lead is in this this via practice and experimentation (see the half steps up above). 

But it is likely that our analog associational forms will themselves need to change. We need the role that they play, but do we need new forms of associations? The nature of data - which is very different from the nature of shared physical space - makes it worth considering what shared digital associational space, shared digital associational assets, and shared digital associational governance structures will best serve us. 

The real barrier we face now is changing how our institutions are run, how they are governed, the incentives and compliance requirements we put on them. For foundations, there is an enormous opportunity to innovate on the form - and the currency (data) - that they deploy in service of their missions.  This is an incredible time for philanthropists to redesign foundations - to experiment, re-imagine, and think differently about the structure that would best use data as a philanthropic resource. 

The technology is here to let us think about solving public problems in whole new ways - but the legal and regulatory frames for doing so are not yet developed. "It takes a long time for institutions and economies to rearrange themselves to take best advantage of new technologies." We will need to re-write the rules and regulations that define philanthropy, from their bases in 20th century financial assets to those that fit a data-abundant world. 

Check out Lucy Bernholz at


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