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Moving Theory Into Action with Open Data: Interview with Ben Hecht

living cities logoThe following mini-interview is a follow-up to this article: 5 Transformational Forces That Should Be Driving The Social Sector (But Aren’t). The web is full of insightful statements. It’s more difficult to find the discussions that follow them as they most often take place offline and in our heads. We appreciate this opportunity for a brief follow-up discussion with Ben Hecht, President & CEO of Living Cities – to ask two questions about the implications of an article that made a stir and made the rounds (over 600 rt’s on Twitter) when first published on FastCoexist. The themes are still relevant; but, as of yet, there are no definitive answers – only encouraging examples. Nevertheless, we are obliged to make an informed push for ways forward. In that spirit, we asked two questions about the implications of Ben’s article in order to get closer to articulating business models that work, particularly with respect to open data.


Ben contends that:

Technological advances that are powering the rest of the economy have been slower to make their mark on people working for change. What could happen when they are fully unleashed?

“The future is already here–it’s just not evenly distributed.” This observation attributed to science-fiction writer William Gibson perfectly captures the increasing divide between the social sector and the rest of the world. The future is already here for the mainstream global economy, built on open data, mobile and social connectivity, and the wisdom of crowds. The social sector, by contrast, is showing few signs of the future, continuing to operate in an increasingly outdated paradigm that places a premium on control; a reliance on experts and one-way communication flows; and exists purely in the physical world.

The orientation of most of the social sector is akin to that of a crew team during a race–furiously rowing to reach its goal, all the while with its back to the future. In today’s environment, with even greater demands on already stretched budgets, high-performing, public-purpose organizations should be asking themselves how these five transformational forces–forces that should be driving the social sector into the future but aren’t–can change the way they work.”  Read the full article here…


You call out Ushahidi as an example to follow. Theirs is a donor-driven model (i.e. that of the majority of nonprofits).  What needs to happen so that a company like Ushahidi is not simply a high-performing outlier among the large part of the sector dependent upon donors? What are you seeing that is already happening?

Usahidi is part of a broader movement powered by the internet that enables us to turn to the ‘crowd’ for a variety of services, opening up a world of possibilities to start- ups. A non-profit tech company that specializes in developing software for information collection visualization and interactive mapping, Usahidi was first developed to map instances of post-election violence in Kenya through text message, email, twitter and the web. But, it has since been deployed around the world for disaster relief and documenting human rights violations, for example. The Usahidi platform is free and open source, thus enabling customization to different geographies and issue areas.

So, not only does it harness the wisdom of crowds to provide vital services, but it also enables others to build on the existing innovation.  This is one example of the potential of ‘crowding’, but even organizations that are not focused on technology can tackle challenges in new ways through this movement.

For example, today, access to talent, funding, and marketing are some of the most significant barriers for new nonprofit organizations, particularly those focused on solving problems in ways that are untested. Yet crowdsourced funding, labor, and creativity alleviate some of the pains of the start-up process, reduce the risk of moving forward with a new innovation, and make services more broadly accessible.

Crowdfunding, for example not only raises money from a large number of individuals, but also has the added benefit of marketing the services, and is also a potential way to test demand. And, recent legislation allows crowdfunding to expand to for-profit investment, opening up a previously unimaginable capital source.

So, the ‘crowd’ has become an investor, employee, and knowledge creator, and this has the potential to transform how we solve social problems; but to get there, we need to think strategically and creatively. and Network for Good are great examples of organizations that are building new business models marrying technology, crowds and social networks.

Given that open/big data-driven business models are nascent in the wider social sector, what do you think are the elements of a successful business model that relies on that data to solve social problems?

There are likely a number of business models that will be built powered by open/big data.  Organizations may build their own financial sustainability using one or more of these models.  One is applications.  This is already being done by many for-profits who are using publicly available, open data to help people get information that they want.  The most robust area is real time bus/train schedules like HopStop & Embark.  But there are an array of applications in various stages of beta, often being built by Code for America Fellows or Brigades, that will likely populate this industry in the coming years.

Another model may be centered on data analytics, especially in helping places to use data to predict outcomes, behavior and interventions in specific areas such as crime or health.  Finally, consulting practices will likely grow.  These may range from bringing in fellows to add municipal capacity like Code for America to helping cities to address difficult transportation and planning problems like OpenPlans.