Let’s assume that we succeed in our efforts to make digital data more useful in the social sector. All of our data are networked. They are available in common and interoperable formats; the data are open and re-mixable. Data visualization tools are widely available
Will such circumstances bring us new solutions to longstanding challenges? New cures for diseases, better health outcomes, new educational insights, and new tools for comparing enterprises and activities?
Yes, they will.
Will we develop new insights about communities, new ways to manage natural resources and new mechanisms for holding ourselves and others accountable?
Yes, we will.
But can we accomplish all this good while avoiding completely predictable policy train wrecks between new technological possibilities and established forms of governance, privacy, and security?
No, not at the rate we’re going.
Not unless we plan now for a social sector organized around a fundamentally different asset than the one we’ve known for a hundred years.
Digital data are not like money. They are generative, renewable, copy-able, networked, and abundant. They can be stored on vast scales and shared across institutional and national boundaries easily.
The rules and practices of our current social sector were developed around time and money. These two resources are scarce. They can’t be copied and used by many people all at once. Only one person can have them at a time.
Think of digital data as water and our time and money as land. You can’t drive a car on the sea and houseboats aren’t great ocean faring vessels.
We have new tools.
We need new rules.
How will we collect, organize, govern, store, share, and destroy digital data for public benefit? How will we use this resource ethically, respecting the rights of the individuals connected to the data while also producing the benefits available to communities from the aggregated data?
Here are a couple of ideas – deliberately half-baked – to get us started.
- We should rethink our 100-year old practice of providing tax incentives for the enterprise that produces social good and instead provide incentives for particular activities, independent of enterprise form. If, for example, we want to encourage the donation of digital data sets from car sharing enterprises to inform local policy making isn’t there a public benefit regardless of whether the data come from a nonprofit or a business?
- We need to consider what versions of the rules on distribution and ownership that now define nonprofits should apply to digital data. These two corporate clauses define a sector of institutions that put private resources to work for public benefit – how does this apply to data?
- Digital data are forever. Given the generative, remixable, and reproducible nature of digital information, what might a data endowment look like?
- We should think about how we will hold nonprofits accountable for their use of data from and about us. What rights do we have as donors, volunteers, and beneficiaries?
We also need to attend to the rules that protect civil society, personal privacy and shared action and make sure these practices make sense in our digital age. How can civil society participate more systemically in these efforts?
- Can we guarantee that digital data won’t be used to exacerbate existing power divides or to further economic inequality? No, we can’t. So we must ensure that the rules we use to limit government interference or marketplace discrimination are robust enough to hold in the digital age. Do we need a digital bill of rights?
- Can we predict all the ways new technologies will work, for good or evil? No, we can’t. So we must protect the rules that enable independent associations and political protest in light of each new wave of networked, digital data gathering.
- All civil society organizations need to participate in political negotiations about digital access, ownership, and control. Those decisions shape how the digital landscape works and how civil society will function in that landscape.
To get the most from digital data we have to recognize the ways they are fundamentally different from the resources that came before. We need to structure our work and our institutions to take best advantage of digital tools. This means more than just new software and new skills. It means learning to manage, protect, govern, share, and destroy a resource – digital data – that is as different from money and time as water is to land. We need them both, but each requires its own set of institutions and navigational methodologies.