‘Big data’ and philanthropy – powerful but mixed blessing?

14.06.2013 Blog

The Annual Grantmaker’s Association conference, which was organised this year by the European Foundation Centre in Copenhagen, 30 May to 1 June 2013, is a global get-together of philanthropic funding and grant-giving organisations for discussing and debating common issues concerning the social challenges they need to address and how best to dispose of their financial and other resources to this end. On the agenda were also the types and modalities of stakeholder partnerships best suited to meeting social needs, as well as the impact of new methods and tools like ICT and ‘big data’.

One of the agenda highlights on the final day was indeed a panel discussion on “Latest trend or here to stay – can ‘big data’ truly empower our philanthropy and our communities?”, organised and led by the San Francisco headquartered non-profit network TechSoup Global. (www.techsoupglobal.org) This network was founded in 1987 “on the belief that technology is a powerful enabler for social change”, and today has European offices in Poland and the UK, as well as a “vibrant community of contributors, co-conspirators, allies and partners…in 50 countries” around the world. In opening the panel session, the moderator Rebecca Masisak (CEO, TechSoup Global) introduced TechSoup Global as a non-profit social enterprise promoting the use of technology by 138,000 NGOs globally in meeting social needs. Rebecca quoted a recent McKinsey report which trumpeted ‘big data’ as “the next big thing” and that the purpose of the panel discussion was both to examine the potential of ‘big data’ for philanthropy as well as unpick possible downsides and challenges.

Marko Rakar (President, Windmill, Croatia) is the inspiration and chief protagonist behind the unmasking and correction of massive voter registration fraud in Croatia, which will be the newest EU Member State from 1 July 2013. When confronted, several years ago, with the remarkable ‘fact’ that Croatia has 4,435,000 citizens but 4,478,580 registered voters, he set about obtaining voter data from a confidant inside government and quickly made it available on an improvised website: http://popisbiraca.pollitika.com/. Undertaking some analyses of this data he was able to show, for example, that in one small town some family dwellings had many hundreds of registered voters, whilst several addresses were in fact non-residential, such as the police station where many tens of voters apparently lived, not all of whom could possibly be incarcerated criminals. The ensuing outcry from public and government officials alike demonstrated the power of this particular example of whistle-blowing, and led to much more stringent control of the voter registration system. Marko’s web-site and approach was formally adopted by the authorities in a belated attempt to demonstrate their openness and transparency prior to EU membership accession: https://biraci.uprava.hr/. At the same time, the government deleted almost 20% of all voters or about 700,000 people, as well as undertook legal and constitutional changes to ensure that such corruption would not be repeated.

Jeremy Millard (Danish Technological Institute and coordinator of the social innovation research project TEPSIE) highlighted two other global examples of the power of ‘big data’. First, the hugely successful and innovative “I paid a bribe” web-site launched in India in 2010 in the context of a massive social outcry and movement against corruption in that country. The site was launched by the non-profit organisation Janaagraha to harness the collective energy of millions of citizens to tackle corruption in public services in India. The site collects citizens’ reports about the “nature, number, pattern, types, location, frequency and values of actual corrupt acts” across the country. Citizens can contribute in a number of ways, including reporting on bribes they paid, bribes they resisted and instances where they received a public service without paying a bribe, that is, when they encountered ‘honest officers’.  There is also a ‘bribe hotline’ for people to ask advice about rules and regulations, how to avoid paying bribes, how to deal with corrupt officers, and so on. The idea is that together, these reports will provide a snapshot of bribery and corruption in a particular locality. As often the case, however, one good idea spins off many others, and it was soon appreciated that the data being collected could provide powerful evidence to document the extent and the nature of the corruption challenge in India and thereby become a unique resource in exposing and combatting it, as well as raising awareness amongst “the masses” of that country who suffer most from its depredations. The approach is so innovative and effective that it has already been taken up by grass-roots organisations in 16 other countries, including Greece and Kosovo in Europe. “I paid a bribe” is a good example of a bottom-up, civil society led initiative which crowdsources ‘big data’ and enables these to be analysed.

Jeremy’s second example was, in contrast, a top-down public-private-civil partnership designed to improve rural livelihoods. Poor farmers in parts of Malawi suffer from periodic drought and, as a result, are unable to predict and prepare for the next growing season, nor secure finance for purchasing appropriate hybrid seeds. A partnership between the Insurance Association of Malawi, the World Bank and global NGO, Opportunity International, integrated and analysed meteorological, demographic, soil and other data from extant sources to provide robust prognoses for drought insurance policies for the farmers from which all stakeholders benefit. As a result, the farmers, their families and communities now enjoy more stable and increasing income, which both improves their standard of living as well as keeps them on the land rather than forcing them to migrate to urban areas.

In considering the philanthropic movement as a whole, Victoria Vrana (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Charitable Sector Support who also oversees Markets for Good) pointed out how it was lagging behind other sectors and movements in its use of ‘big data’. There is a need for philanthropists and grantmakers to make concerted efforts to understand the value of ‘big data’, how and when to use it, and above all how to think strategically about how it can fit and be used to progress the movement’s goals. Looking across many of the Gates Foundations’ activities from agricultural programmes with the Grameen Bank to supporting knowledge workers in Uganda, ‘big data’ can have an important role to play. Data and information can be deployed to support policy, advocacy and the implementation of philanthropic initiatives. Experience shows that it is not always possible to know in advance whether an initiative will produce useful data, but philanthropists and foundations should be alert to the opportunities to do so as this can lead to much greater impact as well as to useful evidence for future strategy and programme development. Another lesson is that, certainly in an advocacy context, there needs to be a clear and accessible story around the data in order for its potential impact to be realised. Victoria characterised the impact of ‘big data’, and indeed ICT more generally, in terms of the four Vs, i.e. ICT provides volume and velocity, but we also need to ensure that the ‘big data’ exhibits variety and veracity when used for philanthropic purposes. In this context, there are also potential pitfalls and dangers concerning data mis-use as well as individual data privacy and IPR (intellectual property rights).

These issues were also taken up in the subsequent audience debate which touched on two main areas. First, the requirements that philanthropists should place on ‘big data’, such as to be usable by all, accessible, structured, in standardised formats, as well as being machine-readable, linked and searchable. There is also a need to improve user skills and the tools and methods needed to exploit ‘big data’ to best advantage within a philanthropic context. Second, we need to be aware of the problems and potential pitfalls ‘big data’ throw up, like the need for rational and ethical interpretation of data analytics, understanding that data correlations do not necessarily reveal causality, and seeing data only as one, albeit very powerful, source of evidence. Coupled to this are issues about data ownership, and being able to track and trace data provenance. That said, however, data are all around us and are already an indispensable source of both economic and social value. Philanthropists and grantmakers do need to adopt a strategic approach and sensibly use big data to promote their causes and values.