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Let Our Data Define Us – Part I

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this, the first of a two-part post, Lucy Bernholz issues a challenge to the social sector: discover the potential in our data and change the way we use it.

Solutions to shared social challenges should not be proprietary. To achieve our social missions we should share what we know—widely, accessibly, and openly. We should define our work and our enterprises by our data and data practices.

What would this mean? Data used for and generated by efforts at improving the human condition should be shared. Investments in structures that allow for data cleaning, sharing, maintenance and appropriate use should be fundamental parts of all funding strategies—as their benefits will rebound to (and beyond) each contributor. Creative Commons or other open licensing standards should be the default for research and findings. Open data protocols should be the norm for data sets developed with philanthropic resources. The best privacy protocols and attention to human rights protections should be widely understood, available, and used when needed. Equitable access to broadband, data analysis and digital skills must be provided. The skills that are required for using data—assessing credibility, identifying bias, seeing significance, storytelling – should be part of the sector’s workforce.

We Should Set the Standard for Using Data as a Public Purpose Resource

We should show business and governments what it means to use data well and imaginatively to solve problems, vet solutions and protect individual privacy. We should be encouraging the innovators and “miners” who can manage huge data sets and see new solutions in them. We should be nurturing the ethos of hacking for good, encouraging techies, coders, and public agents to put our data to work in making communities safer, healthcare more accessible, transportation more reliable, cities greener, and art more available. We should be willing to experiment and innovate with mashed-up data sets and stay the course until the efforts yield new insights, new partnerships, new forms of giving, and new knowledge about solutions.

Why should we do this? To achieve our goals. We exist to address shared problems, we should share the resources that can help move us forward. Data are such a resource.

But We Are Nowhere Near Such a Reality

Foundations and nonprofits lag far behind both commerce and government when it comes to using data as assets and resources. The Markets For Good initiative, with its recommendations on infrastructure, interoperability, and access is a great start. It details a platform and set of operating standards by which existing data sources—reports, compliance documents, grants, and due diligence reviews can be made visible and useful. It lays the groundwork for better mapping of issues, shared planning efforts, and potential new ways of working.

To define ourselves by our data we also have to recognize that Markets for Good is only a start. It will make available data that we can use, but more important it will set the stage for innovation off of that data. Let’s look to these markets for the raw materials of change—just as the National Weather Service fuels the weather channel and countless weather apps, or federal satellite data unleashed the creation of the GPS industry and mobile maps, lets not stop at the stage of collecting, cataloging, opening, and sharing data.

Let us view the Markets for Good initiative as a small step toward a giant leap in making change. One in which networks of individuals can crowd fund experiments and link them to sustaining institutions. Where the data created by a failed foundation investment in a digital news experiment becomes the raw material for another experiment, one that might work. Where the lessons learned from hundreds of independently operated after-school programs can be aggregated and analyzed for all to use. Where the data trails generated from online giving sites are re-constituted into “community sensors” that reveal the needs and strengths of different communities. Where new forms of enterprise and fiscal sponsorship, peer-based accountability and mobile payment mechanisms can be created.