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.
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.
Who do you associate with online? In a brief video from 2010, internet activist Ethan Zuckerman argues that cultural barriers are preventing us from using the internet to tackle global issues. Flame wars be gone. On the danger of the “ideological echo chamber effect” on society by today’s mainstream social networks, Zuckerman says, “What you’re looking for is a conversation, not to win a fight.”
While industrialization has prompted unprecedented economic growth and allowed for the rise of a new middle class in China, urbanization has also left some 9 million children in the countryside alone as their parents work in cities far from home.
Down from the Mountains chronicles the lives of three children who when not in school live often unattended on a farm in Liangshan. With their parents working in the distant city of Huizhou, only their grandmother, who lives a 40-minute walk away, is able to supervise them. Director Max Duncan brings us into the lives of this fractured family as Jiajia, the mother, considers a permanent return home.
The Maeklong Railway Market, nicknamed ตลาดร่มหุบ Talat Rom Hup (“umbrella pulldown market”) is one of the largest fresh seafood markets in Thailand. Whenever a train approaches, the awnings and shop fronts are moved back from the rails and replaced once the train has passed.
When nation-states default on their national sovereignty, cities have to step up. They can’t wait. And they don’t need to ask for permission. They can exert their own sovereignty. They understand that the local and the global have really, truly come together, that we live in a global, local world, and we need to adjust our politics accordingly. At this moment of extraordinary international uncertainty when our multilateral institutions are paralyzed and our nation-states are in retreat, cities and their leaders are our new 21st century visionaries.
The early techno scene in post-unification Berlin was something out of Mad Max. East Berlin had wasted for years, and by the time Reagan said, “tear down this wall,” a pack of club kids had inherited the empty war-torn city.
“That’s one big historical accident. Nobody could have anticipated anything like that,” says Tobias Rapp, pop culture editor at Der Spiegel. “The wall falls down and a small scene in West Berlin takes over huge empty spaces in East Berlin, so they celebrate the freedom.” A perfect experiment, reuniting kids from both sides. Rapp remembers squatting with friends, “running through this empty city looking for a party” (video).
The space was reclaimed eventually, but not before techno took root. Rapp and other pioneers have since legitimized the industry, which now accounts for a serious chunk of Berlin tourism.
Look at Detroit today, where techno began, and you’ll see 80s East Berlin staring back at you. In 2013, the city became the largest in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. It’s seen growth since, but some parts are so empty the city has a hard time providing services. Worst case scenario? Slipping into perpetual decay. In other words, becoming a giant slum that happens to be the 21st most populous city in the country.
Dimitri Hegemann, founder of Berlin’s legendary club, Tresor, sees potential. “There’s a really good moment in Detroit now because there’s a new generation looking for an alternative way to start something,” he tells Thump in this 2014 interview. “The vibe is good. We could open some doors. We share similar energies, Detroit and Berlin.”
The tale of these two cities underscores both the fragility and promise of urban settlements everywhere. Santa Fe Institute’s Luis Bettencourt asks if the challenge of slums, “the face of contemporary urbanization,” is more than just a phase. He believes a city should always enable socioeconomic creative potential. Techno’s migration to Germany ignited scenes in New York, London and Paris. Considering how club kids helped to shape Berlin, anything is possible for the city that inspired them.
Now, Detroit’s a case study on revitalization, innovative governance and co-design. Like Berlin, Detroit needs a new scene. What can the city learn from the pioneers of techno? I don’t know, why don’t we ask them?
Scientific research suggests that everything about human awareness (sight, sound, even time itself) is all a construction of the mind. So what are the pitfalls of treating these constructs as objective truths? According to Mahāmudrā Buddhist teaching, explored by clinical psychologist Daniel Brown in The Sun Is Always Shining, a video by Claudia Biçen, the more enamored we are of our selves, the more fixed we are in our own “realities,” limiting the possibilities of our awareness.
A quarter of Rio de Janeiro’s residents live in informal communities called favelas. Not fully slums but not fully integrated either, favelas are home to both horrific gang violence and some of the city’s most creative and resourceful people.