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Data Points and Data Agents

dbh blog imageHow is technology drawing us closer to meeting needs on the groun? We count on it to connect us in ways not previously possible, but the recurring question is, “What are we doing with it?” Daniel Ben Horin surveys this landscape through the dual lenses of data and technology for Markets For Good. Daniel founded Techsoup Global in 1987 on the belief that technology is a powerful enabler for social change.

Data has always been the basis upon which societies have been able to thrive. In times of austerity, in times of trouble, the need for data becomes even more glaring. When Hurricane Sandy recently hit, access to data helped people get what they needed, for example through maps of pharmacies, Red Cross shelters and open gas stations. When the Haitian earthquake struck, Ushahidi’s crisis map, built on text messages and diaspora translations was pivotal to rescue efforts.

For most people, problems are local: when will the next bus come, how can I find support to send my child to school, what trusted organisations help women with health and which should I support? But these local needs ‘roll up’ to the big global issues– Climate change, poverty, disease, hunger, education—which are, essentially, the sum of local issues. Data connects local and global issues and informs coherent solutions.

We need to know how to find the data and how to make it visible to a wide range of actors. A particularly key actor is Civil Society – the name given to the millions of NGOs and other community serving organizations that, collectively, serve as a bridge between the needs of citizens on the ground and the policy decisions made by governments.

The good news is that a range of interesting efforts are taking aim at the problem of connecting the millions of dots and, finally, creating a valid picture of global Civil Society. These efforts include:

  1. Markets For Good– sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Liquidnet, aims to be a collaborative hub for all those concerned about data and impact-driven investment. It will help multiple stakeholders in the social sector better use and share information

  2. The recently launched AidData Center for Development Policy, will develop geospatial data and tools to enable aid to be targeted coordinated, delivered, and evaluated more effectively.

  3. The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), voluntary and multistakeholder in nature developed a common and open international IATI standard which makes aid spending information easier to access, use and understand.

  4. Commercial interest is developing quickly in the arena of global civil society. Consider: What would an organized view into the NGO sector mean to one of the competing search engines? How would it play out in the subdomain space?

  5. TechSoup Global itself is engaged in a variety of projects that collect data on the sector and its wealth of stakeholders.

    • The Gates and Hewlett Foundations are supporting a range of data-savvy NGOs (GlobalGiving, GuideStar US, Foundation Center and TechSoup Global) to design a system to assign unique identifiers to NGOs around the globe through a first of its kind Basic Registry of Uniquely Identified Global Entities (BRIDGE)

    • We are developing Global Eligibility Services, which we currently operate with local NGO partners in 45 countries as part of our product donations program,  to make it much easier, by the click of a button, to find out if an NGO is legally registered in their country

    • Our GuideStar International program supports public online databases of NGOs in Belgium, Luxembourg, India, Israel and the UK. We plan to launch in additional countries in Asia and Europe

    • Partnering with the John Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies and its Director Lester Salamon we plan to extract micro data used by statistical agencies around the world and feed it into our GuideStar Programme

    • In collaboration with the Council on Foundations in the United States, TechSoup Global has developed NGOsource, to help reduce barriers to international grantmaking by streamlining the process of determining if an NGO outside of the US is equivalent to one registered in the US. (This is a requirement of U.S. tax law.

Encouraging as these projects are, we cannot content ourselves with a top down view into Civil Society. We must also assist CSOs to become sophisticated in data access, manipulation and display skills. They are increasingly being counted but still rarely do the counting. They are data points not data agents. The voices of those working in this sphere must be heard and included in our big data world. Their ground-up view should also be combined with the birds eye view that government and inter-governmental agencies gain from large datasets.

For example the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) and Slum Dwellers International (SDI) found that helping the poor to gather data about their communities, created solidarity around the data, improved dialogue with government and influenced decision making. Communities produced much better data than professionals could in a more cost effective way, while solving language issues, removing cultural barriers, increasing trust and introducing maps where none existed.

Projects like Datakind, which seeks to embed volunteer data scientists inside NGOs, are also addressing this issue.

In sum, ground-up, participant-driven approaches can complement top-down, comprehensive ‘big data’ approaches to enable us to truly ‘see’ the helping organizations around the world, and to enable these organizations to carry out their missions at a much higher level.

Keisha Taylor, who works on open data issues from TechSoup Global’s London office, collaborated on this post. Her weekly ‘data digest’ is available on the Netsquared blog.