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The Grand Challenge of Data Interoperability

This post on the #MFGChallenge first appeared on Philanthropy 2173.

I love LEGOs. Even before the fancy, pre-ordained kits with round wheels, the simple clicking together of those “posts” and “holes” allowed you to build castles, race cars, space ships, people, animals, monsters, anything you could imagine. If my mother couldn’t quite tell that that masterpiece taking over the living room was the fabricated city of Lucyopolis with its alien residents, sqaure-wheeled cars, and eight footed dogs, well that’s because she lacked the vision of an 8 year old.

My sisters could always tell what it was. Just before they ripped it apart and turned it into JaneVille or MarthaLand.

Jane, Martha and I could each build totally different universes using the same blocks because LEGOs are “data interoperable.” Every piece could be clicked into every other piece. Everything worked fine. Until my brother, Dennis, came along with the Lincoln Logs or ERECTOR set. Then things got interesting. The best we could do was to force the pieces together or balance them precariously on one another. Needless to say, Dennis Township was always a bit more vulnerable to being hacked by a passing cat, dog, or sister then one of the pure LEGO villages. If only we could have fit the Lincoln Logs into the LEGO blocks securely – well, we could have connected all of our villages, strung a LEGO/ERECTOR/Lincoln log tramway to the neighbor’s house, and transformed the world of play!!

Nowadays I spend my time wishing we could do this with data about the social sector. What problems might we solve if we could connect data from public health statistics with information on clinic locations and open hours? If poverty data, environmental quality, and jobs information could be viewed together, what might we learn? What if we could easily search one website for philanthropic, public, and investment dollars going into clean energy startups? Or do a single search of all nonprofit board members to identify those with tight connections to elected officials?

Make the data work together – This is the challenge that the Gates Foundation and Markets For Good Initiative have put before us. They’ve announced a new Grand Challenge of Data Interoperability – open for applications until May 7, 2013 – for great ideas that connect data to inform social action.

Perhaps you have a great idea that relies on linked, open data about the social sector? Or perhaps you’ve been wondering if there is way to use city data from 311 systems to inform participatory budgeting processes? Maybe you have an algorithm to turn Lincoln Log data into LEGO compatible form? Or perhaps you have a system that can use data in its native form (some LEGOs and some ERECTOR Set pieces…) but you can pull it together so we can make sense of it. If so, check out the Data Interoperability Challenge – our communities (Lucyopolis, MarthaLand, JaneVille and Dennis Township) need you.

Applications will be accepted online from March 4, 2013 through May 7, 2013, 11:30 AM PST. Each challenge winner will receive a grant of $100,000. More information. And follow #MFGchallenge on Twitter.