Internews Center for Innovation & Learning

Internews Center for Innovation & Learning
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Open Data for Social Innovation

On February 6, I attended a Fireside Chat with Jonathan Greenblatt, Special Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the Domestic Policy Council. The event was held at 1776 here in DC, a very cool incubator for social innovation startups. 

The discussion touched on a variety of triggers for social innovation, such as innovative financing mechanisms (i.e. social impact bonds), financial capital from the private sector, foundations, and citizens, interagency programs to leverage human capital and Americans' enthusiasm for public service, and collective impact models used by cities across America to solve persistent issues like homelessness.

But, my ears perked up when the topic turned to measurement, evaluation, and data: three very trendy topics in the international development world and beyond. Yet, it wasn’t the argument for evidence-based, data-driven decision making that was so surprising (in fact, I would hope to hear it coming from an advisor to the President!). What really struck me was Jonathan’s point about data in the non-profit sector, where -- generally speaking -- transparency and the ability to gauge the performance of social impact organizations is sorely lacking. 

This reminded me of numerous conversations we've had within the Center and with other Internewsers about the importance of knowing our data so that we can achieve better impact: what data do we have, and what data should we be collecting? Where do we excel, and where could we improve? What lessons lie within the vast amounts of information we have collected over 30+ years of programming? We know that answering these questions will allow us to better serve the communities that we work with and will work with, and to make better use of the resources that we invest into our programs.

It is becoming clear that the demand for these insights will only grow, and not necessarily driven by the players who currently preoccupy most of our attention. In his remarks, Jonathan pointed out the growing power of crowd funding and aggregated individual giving that far surpasses that of the traditional big players in philanthropy and investing for social good. As we look to the future, it is no longer the USAIDs or the Rockefeller Foundations that will be the main drivers of social impact initiatives. It will be the hundreds -- thousands -- of ordinary citizens that have the tools, technology, and information they need to invest in the causes and organizations that they believe are doing good work.

This link between open data, transparency and crowd funding is quite profound, and has big implications. What if Internews decided to release all of its program data on GitHub? What if we signed on to standards like IATI, aiming to make information about our spending easier to access, use and understand? And, what if we could harness our experience in data literacy and graphicacy to ensure that such information was relevant, appropriate, and easily understandable to different individuals from different communities?

It may be a frightening thought, but opening our data is an incredible opportunity to position us as a thought leader that not only "thinks" but "does" based on evidence -- leading donors and peers in adapting to a world that is changing whether we like it or not. And, as funding models begin to shift -- because they will -- it is also a chance to get closer to the communities and citizens that we aim to serve: learning from how they invest their money, surfacing information on the problems they believe to be most pressing, and exchanging information on the solutions they believe could be most effective.