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Reflections: Transforming the Sector in Toronto

Data World Tour, Opinion

Lucy Bernholz reflects on lessons learned from social sector leaders at the Transform the Sector conference in Toronto, the second gathering of the Digital Impact World Tour

After the Data on Purpose / Do Good Data conference at Stanford, the Digital Civil Society Lab kicked off a yearlong series of convenings around the globe to learn from civil society leaders creating social impact in the digital age. Toronto was our first stop, where we partnered with Powered By Data, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, with support from global partners Microsoft, MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth and Perpetual Limited, to host the Transform the Sector conference.


Canada was an ideal venue for this day-long conversation. Canadian civil society organizations regularly navigate between open data laws and strong privacy requirements at both the federal and provincial levels. Civil society organizations around the world face these same tensions, and there was much to learn from the Canadian experience.


More than 300 people, including 22 invited Conference Fellows, participated in a packed day of workshops and plenaries. Many of our conversations focused on ways that Canadian nonprofits are contracting with government agencies to make use of open government data while also protecting the privacy expectations of Canadians. This contract-based approach is common in many places because it allows for specificity and direct, tailored negotiations. One example that stood out was an initiative by PolicyWise for Children and Families, to develop a variety of contractual frameworks that other organizations can use.


What contract-based partnerships don’t provide, however, are common standards or coverage for those not directly bound by a contract. For these issues, we sought to learn from the protocols developed by several First Nations – including some conceptual frameworks that meld “creative commons” licensing with traditional knowledge.


Conference participants were challenged to think about their organizational practice through the lens of the entire data lifecycle, starting with designing data collection processes with community needs in mind. We considered the role of data governance in indigenous communities. The McConnell Foundation offered insights from innoweave, its shared services model, and we heard about the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s early efforts to “manage to outcomes.”


Transform the Sector launched more lively, thought-provoking discussion than we could have hoped. The Digital Civil Society Lab connected with several new Canadian partners to build and test resources for the Digital Impact Toolkit. We were grateful to be able to help support an inclusive participation model through the Conference Fellows program that brought under-represented communities to the conference. We were energized and inspired by Toronto and we can’t wait to carry these insights with us to the next stops on our learning tour.