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Reflections: Data on Purpose / Do Good Data

Data World Tour, Opinion

Andrew Means reflects on the Data on Purpose / Do Good Data conference at Stanford, which has launched a yearlong series of gatherings for civil society leaders around the globe.

On a rainy morning in February, 450 of us gathered on Stanford’s campus for the Data on Purpose / Do Good Data conference, hosted by the Stanford Social Innovation Review and the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. This year we combined two existing conferences – hence the hybrid name! – and brought a whole bunch of “data do-gooders” together under one roof.

When Lucy Bernholz and I opened the conference with a talk on the possibilities and responsibilities of digital data, we pointed to one of the social sector’s key strengths: its diversity. Yet too often the conferences we attend are homogenous echo chambers. The conference was an inspiring experience of diverse colleagues coming together and creating a space for respectful disagreement and debate. The conference brought together data practitioners, nonprofit leaders, digital activists, philanthropists, scholars and technologists. For two days we wrestled with some of the most pressing issues regarding both the opportunities and responsibilities of the use of digital data in the social sector.

The recent 2016 U.S. presidential election was certainly looming large over the conference proceedings and I was glad that the conference created a space for participants to share questions and uncertainties around their use of data in the changing political context.

In fact, for me, one of the most valuable things I took away from the conference was a new sensitivity to the data we use in the sector. I often work with vulnerable populations and I left the conference with a renewed commitment to make sure they were not made more vulnerable by the technology I use and develop.

I came of age professionally in the years of the Obama administration. I started my work in civic and nonprofit technology with little fear about having to protect my stakeholders’ data from their own government. I took data security seriously and used best practices, but I also assumed a level of government benevolence that I am no longer comfortable with. Many of the colleagues I spoke with at the conference also felt their tech utopianism challenged a bit. I am grateful to SSIR and the Digital Civil Society Lab for facilitating these timely conversations.

Another major theme of the conference was the need for technology to align with our needs and values as a sector. Too often we agree to terms of service or default settings that do not reflect the way that we say we respect and protect our stakeholders whether they be donors, beneficiaries or the public. In some cases, the right tools just don’t exist for this yet, and we as a sector must develop new technology that embeds our values. Our technology is an extension of our values and it is time we live out our values through our technology choices.

If you missed the gathering at Stanford, don’t worry, you can watch all of the main stage sessions online. This was the first of many conversations that the Digital Civil Society Lab is taking “on the road” as part of the Digital Impact World Tour, coming to 13 cities across the globe in the coming year. Lucy and I may be coming to a city near you.