I’m thrilled to share that I’m now managing editorial for the Digital Impact (DI) portfolio hosted by the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford PACS. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Liquidnet, and Knight Foundation, DI works to improve digital culture and infrastructure by helping professionals to handle data safely, ethically, and effectively.
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Drilling for data is a massive undertaking that requires more than most nonprofits have. Outside experts can help but work cultures need to change. How can digital nomads be partners in this new data endeavor?
In a public event put on by Stanford PACS in October, Josh Levy, founder and director of Digital Security Exchange, brought attention to a deep data deficit in the social sector. He says matchmaking as a metaphor is useful for understanding what his platform does, but it actually works more like a knowledge exchange.
For Levy, getting nonprofits to sync their data practices with the rest of the world isn’t a top-down assumption of we know what’s best, but rather an affirmation of the value many nonprofits bring to the digital security enterprise. Too bad they can’t see it.
Levy says, “The fundamental data literacy that needs to happen just isn’t in place, and that’s no one’s fault. Nonprofits are under-resourced, they’re under capacity, they have too few people working on too many things, making not enough money. So very rarely will there arise organically this notion of what about data, [much less] coming up with a governance model for it.”
Compounding the issue is organizational paralysis. Little room for advancement results in top-heavy, risk-averse, innovation-poor environments where very few have the time to regroup or improve. Not good, considering at what pace the social sector hemorrhages data. That’s hard knocks for many whose careers depend on knowing more about the people they serve. But help is in sight.
No One’s Fault, Everyone’s Responsibility
When it comes to solving problems, no sector is perfect, but all sectors working together can come close. Nonprofits shouldn’t take Levy’s observations as a scathing rebuke, but rather a call to improve. I’m lucky to have worked with a few nonprofits that are leading in the cross-sector space. TechSoup in San Francisco brings tech solutions to social change agents at reduced rates. The organization registered its one millionth NGO in 2015, and continues to make an imprint on social investment with a virtual slew of professional solutions from tech partners like Microsoft and Adobe.
TechSoup is a powerhouse already, but imagine the potential with two or three million nonprofits under the same umbrella of tech standards and codes of ethics. Many see cross-sector partnerships as the future of corporate social responsibility. It makes sense, given the ethical standards and insights of many nonprofits. As a resource for the social sector, TechSoup can help forge the relationships that facilitate quality and timely data flows, and build a data culture that values diffuse reciprocity as part of a core stratagem in the war against wicked problems.
Then there’s WINGS, the global association based in São Paulo. As a proverbial “butterfly on the wall” for more than three years, I was able to engage with experts ranging from social investors and SROI practitioners, to community philanthropists and tech4good software developers. Listening in on conversations between the world’s smallest and largest philanthropic organizations offered perspectives on how experts in different sectors relate to and communicate with one another.
WINGS, a metanetwork of 20+ thousand philanthropic entities, serves as an information broker that also drives standardization. In 2014, we launched a Global Philanthropy Data Charter designed to unite the sector around data and global development. In 2017, WINGS and Foundation Center released a new version that includes guidance on how to engage in data-sharing practices. I’m excited to see where the project goes, and how strategic alliances fare as a critical success factor.
The Charter gives nonprofits a practical place to start with their data. Theoretically, inertia takes over from there. Levy likens data to a “gateway drug,” in that once it enters your life, you begin thinking about how to store it, name it, control it and share it. By working with consultants who specialize in this line of work, nonprofits are in a better position to partner with the tech companies that are ready to provide funding.
Drilling for data is a massive undertaking that requires time and well-coordinated resources. And that’s not all. Before beginning, everyone from the CEO to the mail clerk has to be in sync with how they handle and report their data. Outside experts can help with data transformations, but work cultures must change first.
Blood from a Stone
Nonprofits are strange birds crunched by capacity issues that weigh heavily on the sector as a whole. Corporate envy drives expectations, despite typically low levels of investment in tech and human resources. Levy says, “People with a high level of technical skill don’t always know where to apply that skill.” He’s talking about the highly specialized private sector employees who bring the fuel to cross-sector initiatives, an example of what Giving Tuesday’s Asha Curran calls “sector generosity.”
What’s ironic, though, is how the vast majority of nonprofit workers — the social change agents who move the needle on the ground — are underappreciated and, as Levy suggests however implicitly, underused.
This is due to what Sean McDonald at Digital Public calls “governance in a loop.” First, I think the elephant in the room, the topic no one wants to talk about but everyone should, is the antiquated power structures that tether nonprofits. A topic for another time, but in short, the social sector should experiment more with democratized models of governance and communication in the workplace.
McDonald says, “Governance, when inclusive, participatory and meaningful, teaches people a huge amount about process and underlying economies. Right now, we have a lot of closed door decision making determining what was historically public policy. We need more people involved in making decisions that define our norms around our norms, particularly norms around social sector and public interest work.”
Governance in this context clearly applies to the workplace. If funder-driven nonprofits are hard-pressed to work with budgets not made for people, how can they adequately invest in their employees, much less their data?
Reimagining mission objectives is a start; no one organization can do everything or be everything to everyone all of the time. Yet, nonprofits often expect too much of themselves and their workers. No strategic plan should be implemented without a focus on partnerships (internal or external), especially for nonprofits whose funder-driven objectives take the lion share of the daily humdrum.
Social change isn’t limited to the social sector. Nonprofits should be willing to outsource their data needs, much like they would for editorial, social engagement or event planning. But how would they do it? Pro bono talent agencies like Taproot are invaluable, but pro bono can only go so far. To scale up, nonprofits should consider integrating talent-for-hire programs into their budgets and innovation portfolios. How can remote workers become full-time partners in this endeavor?
Make Me a Match
Cross-sector initiatives like Digital Security Exchange can gauge the value of a distributed workforce of data experts. Echoing Microsoft’s call for tech companies to be “medics in cyberspace,” nonprofits can call on a workforce of digital nomads to help them transform their data into business intelligence. Given the current scenario, matching experts-for-hire with nonprofits in need isn’t such a bad idea.
Early advocates of the internet’s democratizing power believed it would give people more of a voice about their own communities and countries. Instead, it appears to be reinforcing digital divides between wealthier and better connected countries and poorer, less developed countries.
A Google search for “Accra,” the capital of Ghana, returns its Wikipedia entry, travel advice from Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor, and a few news websites like the Guardian. Almost none of the search results come from pages hosted in Ghana, and though results come from six different countries, five of them are in the global north, as opposed to in Africa.
Only eight countries in Africa have a majority of content that is locally produced. Most content comes from the United States and to a lesser extent, France, according to a new study published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. In Africa, only South Africa and Madagascar ranked high in terms of local content. Even capitals or large cities like Lagos see little local content in Google search results.
“This gives rise to a form of digital hegemony, whereby producers in a few countries get to define what is read by others,” researchers Andrea Ballatore, Mark Graham, and Shilad Sen concluded. They analyzed more than 33,000 Google search results for 188 capital cities and found that the US accounted for over half of the first page of results for 61 countries.
Journalist Susan Crawford takes a critical look at Quayside, Google’s Sidewalk Labs’ project in Toronto:
The situation appears messy: The details of the arrangement are not public, the planning process is being paid for by Google, and Google won’t continue funding that process unless government authorities promise they’ll reach a final agreement that aligns with Google’s interests. There are civil servants in every city, I’m willing to bet, who are deeply worried about massive IoT deals by their cities with companies like Google. It is likely that the burdens of these arrangements, over the decades to come, may outweigh whatever short-term benefits the city obtains. In partnering with local governments to create infrastructure, Alphabet says it is only trying to help. Local governments shouldn’t believe it.
Facebook has been shaken to its core as it came to grips with being perhaps the most powerful media outlet in the world. Among other things, the company grappled with claims of liberal political bias, accusations that it was destroying the free press, and outrage that it had sold ads to Russians trying to influence the 2016 election. What was it like inside the company as these crises unfolded? How has Facebook changed as a result? What is it doing now to address its shortcomings?
WIRED’s Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein spoke with more than 50 current or former Facebook employees to answer these questions in an enthrallingly detailed article titled “Inside the Two Years that Shook Facebook.” Thompson and Vogelstein realized in October that they were both interested in writing features on different aspects of the epic tale, so they decided to team up. Having worked together on “The Plot to Kill Google” in 2009, they knew it would be a happy marriage. The result is an investigative tour de force.
Individuals can do things that increase or decrease how easy it is to publish their data, but the digital economy is designed to capture our data. Blaming users is like blaming a victim for getting kidnapped.
Which is not to say that civil society organizations have it easy – there’s no practical way to track the full range of commercially available applications, their data policies, or the number of ways they could collect or lose control of data and cause harm. Civil society organizations may understand how dangerous their situation is, but that doesn’t mean they can monitor the entire market.
The knee-jerk reaction is to push for government regulation or human rights. While we should always work toward better laws, there are a lot of flaws to putting all our eggs in that basket. The law isn’t good at classifying data or risk, regulators have limited jurisdictions, and courts are terrible at adjudicating these kinds of cases.
Even worse, the 2018 World Justice Report declared “a crisis for human rights,” after showing that rule of law and human rights systems are weakening in 2/3 of the countries measured. When it comes to data capture – the law isn’t particularly effective, and where it is, it’s good at punishing the criminal, not saving the victim.
The good news, is that like protecting yourself from kidnapping, there aren’t perfect answers, but there’s a lot of little things we can do that, together, make a big difference. We don’t need international treaties to write better procurement contracts, we don’t need government interdiction to have workplace policies, and we don’t need commercial regulation to negotiate privacy policies that do more than boilerplate terms of service.
I don’t think I fully grasped the implications of this until my own access was cut off from Rutgers University. Because of this, I cannot see beyond snippets of the latest articles written by my peers unless I’d like to pay the exorbitant per article fee.
Each of these obstacles is a microcosm of the systemic problems plaguing the academic world today. Information is hoarded by institutions more interested in profitability than pedagogy.
Ownership is privileged over access and universities become less bastions of public knowledge than toll-extracting gatekeepers, hoarding scholarship for the privileged few able to have the connections to get in and to afford skyrocketing tuition costs.
Access, in academia and beyond, is a political question relegated to the back burner, one that needs to be reckoned with to have any chance of saving “higher learning.”
The Field Study Handbook by Jan Chipchase is for anyone who has traveled and felt missed opportunities. Conversations that fell short of their potential. Questions left unanswered. Experiences that didn’t feel quite right. This handbook was designed to help you connect to the world out there in new ways.
People are looking for meaning in what they do. There is a more equitable, inclusive and empathic way of engaging the world out there. This is a call for remembering what makes us human. I wanted to create an artifact, a beautiful thing that takes up space in your life and nudges you with its presence.
I wanted to create an artifact. A beautiful thing. That takes up space in your life. And nudges you with its presence. To travel, and experience the world with an open mind, and fresh eyes. So that when you return you are ready to shape the world. There’s a bigger mission here than simply how to conduct research. That reframes the relationship between those who make things and those who consume them.
You end up with a lot of people who want to travel and learn and be empathic, but they’re not really being truthful about their intent. Basically ask yourself, why am I doing this? And be honest about the answer.
Years of limited oversight and unchecked growth have turned Facebook into a force with incredible power over the lives of its 2 billion users. But the social network has given rise to unintended social consequences, and they’re starting to catch up with it.
Facebook is behind the curve in understanding that “what happens in their system has profound consequences in the real world,” said Fordham University media-studies professor Paul Levinson. The company’s knee-jerk response has often been “none of your business” when confronted about these consequences, he said.
That response may not work much longer for a company whose original but now-abandoned slogan — “move fast and break things” — still seems to govern it.
“There’s a general arrogance — they know what’s right, they know what’s best, we know how to make better for you so just let us do it,” said Notre Dame professor Timothy Carone, who added that it’s true of Silicon Valley giants in general. “They need to take a step down and acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers.”
A more progressive spirit in the world of business wouldn’t be a bad thing. But it’s unlikely that more substantial and lasting progressive social change will come from a new corporate ethic. While proponents of progressive business often proclaim to be the vanguard of a new ‘revolution’ wherein the role of business in society as we know it will change, it is worth noting that progressive business is by no means a new idea.
For example, the 1956 book The American Business Creed — the most comprehensive account of US business ideology ever written — laid bare a conceptual tension between two kinds of business ideologies: ‘the classical business creed’ and ‘the managerial business creed.’ Where the former saw profit-maximization as the central goal of corporations, the latter saw social responsibility as the key goal.
Where the managerial creed existed alongside a rising middle class, today’s proponents of ‘progressive business’ find themselves in an almost contrary environment. There is no comparable, countervailing force to Big Business.
Where the mid-century managerial creed operated on the basis of there being a contradiction between being for-profit and for-society, contemporary proponents of progressive business often reject that there is any. And where progressive business people might increase the wellbeing of stakeholders to their particular corporations, other institutions such as social democracy and labour and social movements would be necessary if the goal is to raise the welfare of all citizens.
Progressive business is an idea with a longer history than commonly recognized. This history shows that while progressive business can certainly help achieve good things, it should not be a substitute for progressive politics.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has grown increasingly strategic, and a broader concept of sustainability has gained ground.
Public pressure to address negative corporate externalities, and pressing social, economic, and environmental issues drove the evolution of these practices. Over time, they have blurred the lines between the public, private, and civil sectors, and redefined traditional roles and structures in the process.
International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) try to fill the gaps amid calls for greater efficiency and more demonstrable impact, but with fewer resources, more constraints, and increased competition for donor dollars. The public sector and civil society are increasingly looking to the private sector to play a larger role. The question is no longer if companies have a responsibility to society, but how best to execute it.
Many companies are stepping up to the call, navigating the competing demands of shareholders to deliver maximum profits in the short-term, and the demands of employees, consumers, and other stakeholders to respond to long-term social issues. Yet others still struggle to deliver cohesive and authentic programs.
A more integrated approach has the potential to transform such initiatives into programs that benefit business and society.