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?
The International Civil Society Centre is hosting its second Innovators Forum on 27-28 February 2018. The Forum will explore the benefits and possible uses of Blockchain and Big Data in the civil society sector. Before the Forum, guest authors will dive into specific examples or innovations around digitalisation and digital technology, in this week’s blog we want to give a brief overview of the main terms and some examples of their uses.
Many CSOs around the world have realised the potential linked to both Blockchain and Big Data and are currently experimenting with how these technologies can support their work.
The term Big Data refers to extremely large datasets that can be analysed for trends and correlations by connecting different data on a large scale. Due to the size and complexity of the data sets used, new links and patterns can be uncovered. This means that problems that were previously not possible – or simply too complex! – to explain can now be tackled. Most CSOs work with Big Data to improve knowledge about marginalised or ignored groups of people and to identify better ways to serve them. Here are three examples of how:
Plan International is leading the way in developing a digital birth registration tool. Its aim is to help register the millions of undocumented births around the world to lay the groundwork for better health care, education and access to other government services. The system draws on mobile phone technology to reach people and places that governments fail to document, mostly due to the lack of resources.
Caroline Buckee, a Harvard University epidemiologist, used the data of 15 million mobile phones in Kenya to demonstrate how human travel patterns contribute to the spread of malaria. Based on this data, she helped pinpoint where best to focus government efforts to control malaria.
The Centre-hosted project Leave No One Behind is combining smaller data sets to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Using evidence collected by ICSOs in four pilot countries, the goal is to identify the drivers of exclusion in local contexts, and support joint advocacy that will encourage governments to be accountable for their SDG promises.
Blockchain is a network technology can complete any kind of transactions or verification processes in a transparent way. It is a distributed ledger that everyone can view. Thus a transaction, sending a data block (hence the name), is viewable to all and not reversible or modifiable, making Blockchain transparent and accountable.
Many CSOs and social entrepreneurs are using Blockchain technology to increase the efficiency of their operations or increase accountability around the social issues they aim to tackle. Here are a few small examples:
Disberse facilitated the transfer of donations to a school in Swaziland using Blockchain-based technology, saving £375 in international bank transfer fees. The United Nations World Food Programme distributed cryptocurrency-based vouchers to 10,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Blockchain can be used to track and verify interactions between different actors around the globe. Bext360 and Fairfood International aim to ensure fair wages and prices for producers and farmers by monitoring the entire supply chains of coffee, coconuts and other products.
These are just a few examples of the way Big Data and Blockchain are being used to innovate in the civil society sector and beyond. We want to discover more ideas, case studies and stories with our partners, colleagues and friends from across civil society. We also want to look at some of the challenges that come with the use of these technologies: How do we ensure that data is properly secured and not misused? How do we design projects in an inclusive way and increase the number of people who benefit from technological opportunities?
The Innovators Forum will be a starting point, but we will cover different aspects of digitalisation and digital technology through the year 2018. If you want to get involved or share your own work in this space, get in touch!
Thanks to Bond for the inspiration for this article.