Lucy Bernholz: Let Our Data Define Us, Part II

comments 10/03/2012

In Part I of  “Let Our Data Define Us”, guest blogger Lucy Bernholz charged the social sector to be the standard-bearer for one of biggest issues of our time: how we use data. She continues the thought here and outlines a new definition for the sector at the forefront of taking on our biggest challenges.

Ours is a sector that should set the standards for data use, innovation, and sharing. The sector should be a leading voice on issues of digital access and personal privacy and an innovator when it comes to trying new enterprise forms built on data: think Khan Academy.

Social purpose organizations should be careful but willing partners in efforts that use data to find disruptive insights into shared public problems.

We should leapfrog old technologies where possible. Social networks, search engines, text messages – all yield massive aggregate data sets that may reveal how we the people are really making change happen in the 21st Century. When we think about the “data of change” we need to see past our own established boundaries to ask if there are new, better ways to organize to accomplish our stated missions.  In building shared systems of data, let us not limit ourselves to the revenue and enterprise flows that we’ve long used: instead, let us look to the data to see what is going on around us.

The social sector is no longer the purview of philanthropy and nonprofits. Social businesses, informal networks, crowdfunded prototypes, and social investments are all part of the mix.

We cannot define the social sector by the enterprise form (nonprofit), or type of revenue (philanthropy) – this is too limiting.

Nor can we define the sector by its outcomes. Although it is the first-gathering place of those seeking to use private resources for the benefit of others, the social economy relies on relationships with business and government. Should we ever get around to agreeing on outcomes we will still be faced by the hairy problem of attribution – better to focus on doing the work then claiming false credit.

More important, the economy is consciously defined by conflicting results. The deliberate diversity of the sector – that it is home to both pro-life and pro-choice, gun control and gun advocacy organizations – makes its inclusivity more salient than its outcomes.

With enterprise structure and outcomes set aside as defining  characteristics, let us look to data as a revealing asset.

If we set and meet high standards on data sharing in pursuit of mission, provide incentives to gather and share, and demonstrate results by virtue of our practices, the social economy in all its healthy diversity will stand apart. With respect to both the power of aggregate data sets and the rights of individuals, the sector will  become a trusted ally on issues of personal privacy. With a justice-based lens on ownership and property rights and default position of contributing to and taking from shared repositories of data, the sector will can become a proving ground for inclusive practices.

Americans have long taken pride in our tradition of independent associations. Let us now bring that associational tendency and tradition to our use of data. As we have long been known for our civic action and participation offline, let us be come to be known by shared practices around data – how we contribute and draw from it, use it to better opportunities for all of us, protect it and those it makes vulnerable, and value it as a critical resource for change in the 21st Century.

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