How data can help create better communities

Data is used in many different ways in the social sector. We know that nonprofits collect and analyze their data to measure the effectiveness of their services, and that strategic nonprofits use open data to better position their outreach and services. The same is true for foundations, but these applications are often conducted within the silos of the organizations. Data espouses positive effects when it is shared, or, to put it in more familiar terms, when we are transparent with it.

This article originally appeared on Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, on 16 May 2013. The original article can be found here.

By Natasha Isajlovic-Terry

Data is everywhere these days, spilling out over the sides of its containers, and busting out at every seam. The world is literally teeming with it. At the BayNet Libraries Annual Meeting, we learned from Dr. Jonathan Reichental, why this is: “We are grappling with the volume of data in the world because we now collect the same amount of data every three days as we did throughout the entire year in 2003.” This was just one thing I learned from Dr. Reichental’s talk “How Data Can Help Create Better Communities.” Reichental is no stranger to data: He currently serves as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the city of Palo Alto. It sounds like they’re doing some pretty nifty tricks with big, open-data down there. If you’re interested, it’s happening up here too as San Francisco just hired its first CIO.

Dr. Reichental’s talk focused on how government data can be used to improve communities. Data mined from government sources is often mashed-up with data from other free sources, such as Google, to strengthen the quality of data. For example, Palo Alto mashed its data on street quality ratings with Google Street View to create Palo Alto StreetViewer; a tool used to visualize ratings to make decisions about infrastructure improvement.

Data is used in many different ways in the social sector. We know that nonprofits collect and analyze their data to measure the effectiveness of their services, and that strategic nonprofits use open data to better position their outreach and services. The same is true for foundations, but these applications are often conducted within the silos of the organizations. Data espouses positive effects when it is shared, or, to put it in more familiar terms, when we are transparent with it.

Reichental mentioned the following six things about government use of open data (outlined in a summary by Sarah Rich):

  • It  is the liberation of peoples’ data
  • To be useful, data needs to be consumable by machines
  • Data has a derivative value
  • Data eliminates the middleman
  • Data creates deeper accountability
  • Open data builds trust

Three of these things stood out to me in a major way as beneficial for foundations too: derivative value, accountability, and trust.

When data is made available to the public, other organizations can use the same data in interesting and powerful ways. Think about all those fantastic mashups they do on Glee, but with data sets! An example Dr. Reichental shared is the use of public health ratings in Yelp reviews to strengthen the overall value of reviews. I don’t need to repeat the fact that foundations sit on a “treasure trove” of information as they require nonprofits to report all sorts of useful data. Can you imagine the derivative benefits if they shared this information with the world?

When government shares data publicly it creates deeper accountability. Dr. Reichental used the example of how the government is sharing their data through USAspending.gov, which in turn creates greater accountability as the public can now see where and how their money is spent. The same is true for foundations. This is why we have form 990/990-PF. Some foundations are now going beyond the 990-PF and opening up their grants data via the new Glasspockets Reporting Commitment.

The last thing Dr. Reichental mentioned about data, the fact that it builds trust, is the most compelling thing for foundation transparency, and it goes hand-in-hand with accountability. Being transparent means you have nothing to hide, so conversely, when we aren’t transparent, the public assumes that we do have something to hide. The trust component is perhaps the biggest reason why the government decided to share data publicly. The government was collecting it all along, but it wasn’t until recently that they decided to free it. Now, five years into the Obama administration we have over 400,000 data sets available via data.gov.

Data isn’t going anywhere except up and out. We are heading in a direction where sharing data publicly will be expected and touted as part of the common good. In the case of foundations, sharing data may actually increase the value of the work.

Natasha Isajlovic-Terry is the Reference Librarian at the Foundation Center-San Francisco. Infrastructure of Philanthropy is one of six plenaries for WINGSForum 2014: The Power of Networks. Follow on Twitter with #WFnetworks. For event details and to register, visit the WINGS Forum website.

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