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.
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.
Digital Impact is enriched with perspectives from every corner of the public sphere. Our community of experts, virtual roundtable series, and dynamic toolkit draw on the experiences of organizations working toward integrating appropriate data management and governance throughout their work.
Have a viewpoint on data you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you. Visit digitalimpact.org, submit your idea there, or pitch me directly here.
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 most important thing that’s lacking is actually any kind of private space where you are not being monitored by the corporations whose tools you’re using to have whatever conversation you’re having.
So, every time you have a conversation in a digital environment, all of it, there’s a third party who’s got that information — always a corporation. And then all of that exchange is also being monitored by the government.
If the fundamental premise is that this activity of non-profits happens outside of those realms, it literally doesn’t exist in digital space, because we’re playing in their house, if you will. We may well need and would all benefit from an environment that provides some protections for us in those spaces as they exist.
When we talk about digital civil society we always say, ‘Look, we need to invent this, because we don’t have it.’ The best way to protect somebody else’s digital data in that environment is to not collect it. If you don’t have it, then it’s not at risk.
Non-profits have been excited to use things like free online documents and spreadsheets that are stored in the cloud and shared across organizations, and this comes at no direct financial cost to them. If you upload to those systems the names of everyone participating in your programs, with their address their email and their phone number, you’ve just given it away to other parties.
But, if you collect that information and don’t store it online, for one, or you encrypt it, for two, or you store it on your own servers and not in other people’s houses, as I like to think about it, then you are providing the same degree of integrity to that data that you again provide to the money that you rely on to do your business in the first place. You’re treating it with integrity toward your mission.
And if your mission, for example, is helping vulnerable people in your community, don’t do it in such a way that you essentially make them more vulnerable.
At the Linked Data-driven company of the near future:
1. You will find it curiously difficult to distinguish between “traditional” data workers (analysts, data scientists, etc.) and those in other functional areas who, at other companies, are less reliant on data. The agent of change here is the unambiguous way that Linked Data represents the world.
2. You will marvel at the volume and variety of data accruing from disparate sources, flowing from team to team, integrating with other data, producing unexpected insights, available to anyone at any time.
The data, for example, would be browseable and searchable by humans, crawlable and queryable by machines. Additionally, just like the Web, Linked Data enjoys a remarkable network effect in that each data set added to the network increases the incremental value of every data set in the network.
3. You will be inspired by the rapid creation and adjustment of models and automated processes in response to real-time data. Much of this agility is fueled by machine learning models being deployed at a far faster pace than can be achieved without the aid of Linked Data.
This is because the output of machine learning is tightly correlated with the quality of input data. People who work in this area spend much of their time cleaning and preparing input data, whereas semantically linked data has been “pre-understood” and embedded with knowledge.
[Now,] the energy devoted to the costliest, slowest phase of data work — preparation — can finally be reallocated to more productive activities like analysis.
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.
The number of fed, state and local civilian employees eligible for retirement has risen sharply. Meanwhile, new talent isn’t flocking to fill open government positions.
Massachusetts Comptroller Tom Shack suggests technology as a solution. “No one is going to hire their way out of the Silver Tsunami. We’re going to have to tech our way out of it.” Shack launched CTHRU, a cloud-based, open records platform that eliminates hundreds if not thousands of hours of work by his staff to access and share data. Rather than keep the state’s financial information locked in PDFs, individual computers, or in the customized, cumbersome, legacy finance systems, CTHRU shows payroll, budget, and spending data to anyone on a mobile device.
Shack understands the urgency of unearthing as much data as possible before employees with valuable institutional knowledge of programs retire from state service. Governments produce vast amounts of data. Of all the ways technology can reduce staff workloads, making data standardized and accessible in the cloud is one of the most impactful. Unlocking “tribal knowledge” trapped in employees’ minds and their computers opens up nearly endless avenues for process improvement.
With automated data flows, agencies can give the new workforce the empowerment of analyzing and learning from the data, not just the job of collecting and storing it.
Microsoft executives renewed calls for a Digital Geneva Convention and for tech companies to act as “medics in cyberspace,” much like the Red Cross on a battlefield. The enterprise can help fill the gaps in international law relating to cyberattacks, according to Microsoft’s Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne.
Quayside, as the project is known, will be laden with sensors and cameras tracking everyone who lives, works or merely passes through the area. In what Sidewalk Labs calls a marriage of technology and urbanism, the resulting mass of data will be used to further shape and refine the new city.
But extending the surveillance powers of one of the world’s largest tech companies from the virtual world to the real one raises privacy concerns for many residents. Others caution that, when it comes to cities, data-driven decision making can be misguided and undemocratic.