This is the first of two blogs on Data Collaboratives by Stefaan G. Verhulst of The Governance Lab. Data Collaboratives are an emerging public-private partnership model, in which participants from different sectors come together to exchange data and pool analytical expertise. Their potential is great, offering new solutions to old problems and making International Civil Society Organisations more effective. (Read Part II here)
The need for innovation is clear: The twenty-first century is shaping up to be one of the most challenging in recent history. From climate change to income inequality to geopolitical upheaval and terrorism: the difficulties confronting international civil society organisations (ICSOs) are unprecedented not only in their variety but also in their complexity. At the same time, today’s practices and tools used by ICSOs seem stale and outdated. Increasingly, it is clear, we need not only new solutions but new methods for arriving at solutions.
Data will likely become more central to meeting these challenges. We live in a quantified era. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s data was generated in just the last two years. We know that this data can help us understand the world in new ways and help us meet the challenges mentioned above. However, we need new data collaboration methods to help us extract the insights from that data.
For all of data’s potential to address public challenges, the truth remains that most data generated today is in fact collected by the private sector – including ICSOs who are often collecting a vast amount of data – such as, for instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which generates various (often sensitive) data related to humanitarian activities. This data, typically ensconced in tightly held databases toward maintaining competitive advantage or protecting from harmful intrusion, contains tremendous possible insights and avenues for innovation in how we solve public problems. But because of access restrictions and often limited data science capacity, its vast potential often goes untapped.
Data Collaboratives offer a way around this limitation. They represent an emerging public-private partnership model, in which participants from different areas — including the private sector, government, and civil society — come together to exchange data and pool analytical expertise.
While still an emerging practice, examples of such partnerships now exist around the world, across sectors and public policy domains. Importantly several ICSOs have started to collaborate with others around their own data and that of the private and public sector. For example:
These are a few examples of Data Collaboratives that ICSOs are participating in. Yet, the potential for collaboration goes beyond these examples. Likewise, so do the concerns regarding data protection and privacy.
At The Governance Lab (GovLab) at New York University, we have researched in depth the potential of Data Collaboratives, and have identified five specific public value propositions. We are also clear in the need for organisations in Data Collaboratives to embrace establishing “Data Stewardship” roles to ensure responsible data management.
In the next blog, I will go into greater detail about GovLab’s work and explain how ICSOs could use Data Collaboratives to their benefit more, and how they can manage data responsibly.
If you do an internet search for ‘data-driven disruption’ you can find articles about almost every industry being disrupted by digitalisation and new applications of data. Banking, transportation, healthcare, retail, and real estate, all have seen the emergence of new business models fundamentally changing how customers use their services. While there are instances of data-driven efforts in the nonprofit sector, they are not as widespread as they can be. Bridgespan Group estimated in 2015 that only 6% of nonprofits use data to drive improvements in their work.
At the same time, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have set a very ambitious global change agenda and we won’t be able to meet their targets by doing business as usual. To achieve the SDGs requires new ideas across the board: new solutions, new sources of funding, new ways of delivering services and new approaches to collaborating within and across social, public and private sectors.
The private sector already very successfully uses data analytics and machine learning not only to realise efficiency gains but also – even more importantly – to create completely new services and business models. For example, applying machine learning to wind forecasting is expected to reduce uncertainty in wind energy production by more than 45% and will allow utilities to integrate wind more easily with traditional forms of power supply. And entirely new utility start-ups such as Drift use machine learning technologies to provide customers with cheaper wholesale energy prices by more accurately predicting consumption.
In the nonprofit sector, early applications of data analytics and machine learning have mostly focused on improving fundraising and marketing. In a next step, the broader adoption of data analysis techniques and tools has the potential to help nonprofits increase their programmatic impact as well as identify completely new ways of achieving their mission.
As these approaches become more mature and wide-spread in their application their impact will go much beyond making workflows more efficient. They have the potential to fundamentally disrupt how we work and what we define as our core competencies. Today, it may seem challenging to move towards a future where recommending who to support and how could be largely automated. I also don’t want to minimise the challenges in this scenario: the availability of required data and the privacy issues involved.
However, I want to encourage us to actively embrace and shape this future as its potential for positive impact is immense. We need to work together to ensure that the automation involved in these techniques and tools will provide valuable insights that support humans in making thoughtful and effective decisions, free up our valuable and constrained resources and focus them on those parts of our work that truly make a difference in people’s lives.
Chapter 1: The Internet
Today I read a journal article about the charity sector reaching a ‘digital tipping point’. My immediate thought was, “It’s 2018 and we have to ask ourselves is the civil society sector only now talking about a ‘digital tipping point’”.
The introduction of the internet and its plethora of services, knowledge sharing and mass communications has changed humanity for good and for bad.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say the charity sector missed the opportunity to truly use this new and exciting platform for good, yes there are some good exceptions. However, in general, we missed a big opportunity, instead, we let the commercial world dominate the direction and were left simply as consumers of those services and platforms.
Why did we miss it?
In all honesty, we didn’t stand a chance;
Chapter 2: Blockchain
Blockchain is in a real hype cycle, just like the internet back in 1999. And just like then, it has grown into a bubble. It will burst, however, and out of the other side, large companies will rise to take the lead, as was the case with the internet. We should be very concerned about that prospect. Blockchain has great potential. For example, there is a chance that the majority of money flows will shift to run on blockchains as cryptocurrencies. This would make it the biggest change in financial power, ever.
Blockchain offers much more potential beyond simply currencies and assets, for example, there are big opportunities in voting operations, legal services (e.g. notary) and confirming your identity. There exist new opportunities and new hope, but the potential of this hope can only be fulfilled by good actors.
This time we need you to be involved, not looking on from the sidelines waiting for others to lead, we need you to lead, we need you to seize the opportunity, take the risk and help shape it. If you don’t, then just like with the internet, you’ll leave a void that others will fill.
Will we miss out on Blockchain?
Well, the reasons we missed out on the internet are still true today;
The first two reasons are solvable. If CSOs and Charities work together with partners to utilise and explore the opportunity, the risk is shared and funds are multiplied allowing us to move from simply talking and watching to taking real action.
The big question for me is will you lead and help shape this space for good or follow and let others decide who wins and who loses?