If you're feeling like an idiot trying to navigate the technologies and data that increasingly shape nonprofits' operations and strategies, Alix Dunn with Computer Says Maybe and the Stanford PACS Digital Civil Society Lab has a message for you: you're not.

Technology is just hard, Dunn said in her presentation that opened the 2019 Data on Purpose: Navigating the Digital Now conference. Especially today, when tech is changing at a pace faster than ever that can snare unprepared organizations in a grueling game of catch-up.

Dunn's solutions to the dilemmas of the digital now were some of many offered by scholars and practitioners who gathered for the two-day conference. For more highlights from the presentations that SSIR editors and others shared on Twitter using the #SSIRdata hashtag, as well as links to related materials, read on.

Skip to a Session Recap

1. Technical Intuition

2. Is Your Data Undermining Your Mission?

3. Data Capacity-Building in the Civic Sector

4. Which Solution is the Right One? The Product Approach to Sustainable Impact

5. Unlocking Existing Data to Create New Solutions Through a Data Trust Collaborative

6. Building Better Blockchain Technology: The Blockchain Ethical Design Framework

7. Facing the Facts: Security and Privacy and IoT

8. Algorithms and Social Spaces

9. The Transformative Power of Predictive Analytics

10. Meet the 2017 Digital Impact Grantees

11. Closing Keynote: The Viral Versus the Vital

Session 1: Technical Intuition

How do activists avoid feeling inadequate in discussions with tech experts? Which tools do you adopt first? Which do you let go?

In a world where the pace of organizational learning is often slower than the pace of technological change, the answers to such questions can be found by developing your technical intuition (“T.int”), Dunn said. She described it as an ongoing process to imagine, inquire about, decide, and demand technological change.

If you want to level up your “T.int,” keep these guidelines in mind: start with concepts; build conceptual scaffolding; don’t delegate curiosity; balance the inner critic and enthusiast; experiment, but choose.

Dunn also suggested that technology experts recognize that they “terrify people” and warned organizations away from delegating decision-making about technology to just young people.

Dive Deeper:

  • Listen to a podcast from our 2018 Data on Purpose conference. Dunn, along with Lucy Bernholz, a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and the director of the Digital Civil Society Lab, and Amy O’Donnell, the information communications technology program lead at Oxfam, discuss how civil society organizations can examine their data governance practices to align with the demands of governments, their constituents, and their mission.

Session 2: Is Your Data Undermining Your Mission?

If you work in the social good sector, you can’t ignore the history of people with power collecting and using data from people without power. What is the responsible way to handle information?

A big problem with finding the answer is that people commonly think data will both destroy and save them, said presenter Rahul Bhargava, data scientist with the MIT Media Lab. However, in an SSIR Twitter poll (with a debatable methodology), respondents seemed optimistic about the information flood:

Had SSIR's editors provided a “both optimistic and pessimistic” option, it’s more likely the quick survey would have directly echoed Bhargava's point that exaggerated hopes and fears make it difficult to “align data with mission.”

When it comes time to do an organizational data health check, Bhargava suggested closely tracking these concerns: lack of transparency, extractive collection, technical complexity, and decisions about who controls the impact of the data. The analysis isn't so much about expertise as it is about how your organization thinks about the challenges.

“You don't need a data scientist,”  Bhargava said, echoing elements of Dunn's presentation that decried the  fetishization of technical expertise. “You need a data culture.”

Dive Deeper:

Session 3: Data Capacity-Building in the Civic Sector

What can help the social sector go big on data in the right ways? For one, it should stop underestimating itself, said panelist Aman Ahuja, a data consultant:

Other members of the panel included moderator Kevin Miller, civic technology manager from the Microsoft Cities Team, and Kathryn Pettit, principal research associate at The Urban Institute. A third speaker, Kauser Razvi, principal of Strategic Urban Solution, noted that different communities are at different stages of data fluency:

The panel also discussed concerns around organizations building their data strategy around funding opportunities or cost, not deeper strategic goals. As Razvi said, “There’s a high cost to free sometimes.” And consistent with the previous two sessions, the panel emphasized culture over technical expertise:

Dive Deeper:

  • How can social change organizations catch up with their counterparts in the scientific and business communities in collecting and analyzing the vast amounts of data that are being generated by digital technology? This article from the Summer 2014 issue of SSIR offers four steps to help: “Big Data for Social Innovation.

Session 4: Which Solution is the Right One? The Product Approach to Sustainable Impact

How can nonprofits assess their data and technology investments before committing to them? At Vulcan Inc., which guides the organizations and initiatives of the late philanthropist and Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen, the team takes steps that include examining the level of impact, the difficulty of the problem, the risks of execution, and potential business models. Art Min, Vulcan's vice president of impact, and Chris Emura, the firm's executive director for engineering, went on to describe projects such as EarthRanger, Allen Coral Atlas, and Skylight.

Dive Deeper:

Session 5: Unlocking Existing Data to Create New Solutions Through a Data Trust Collaborative

So you want to combine your data with another organization's. You think it could help achieve individual and collective goals. But how do you do it and will it live up to its promise?

In a session moderated by Rob Hope of the San Francisco Foundation, conference attendees heard from Stephen Bediako with Path Group, and Matt Gee with BrightHive. They talked about Project Signal, an emerging data trust collaborative in California that is taking on the state's challenges around employment and job training.

When it comes to figuring out where to start, consider a specific region or specific sector to increase your chances of success, the panel suggested. Also be attuned to social shifts that may make your data collaboration the most effective. The panelists identified extraordinary wealth inequality in the state and the new governor's support of data use as indicators that the time was now to think about using data for good.

Dive Deeper:

Session 6: Building Better Blockchain Technology: The Blockchain Ethical Design Framework

Cara LaPointe, senior fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, made it clear that technology is just a tool serving an end, and one that must be handled carefully to manage the values embedded within it.

Blockchain can help with everything from identity for refugee or homeless populations to conflict diamonds, she said, but it is still human beings who design and run it. She shared three concepts to interrogate to ensure a technology is ethically made: outcomes, users, and orientation.

If you're wondering if blockchain is for you, LaPointe provided a sampling of questions from the “Blockchain Ethical Design Framework” she coauthored with Lara Fishbane:

Dive Deeper:

  • Blockchain, the technology at the heart of bitcoin and other digital currencies, may have the potential to drive profound social impact and transform the social sector along the way. Read the SSIR article “Digital Currencies and Blockchain in the Social Sector.”
  • By making data easily verifiable, resistant to alteration, and instantly available to anyone within a network, the incorruptible digital ledgers known as blockchains can help ensure that commercial goods are ethically produced from mine to store. Read the January 2019 SSIR article “How Blockchain Can Make Supply Chains More Humane.”
  • Blockchain technology will not solve all government problems, but it can help curb corruption and instill trust in government. Read the March 2018 SSIR article “Will Blockchain Disrupt Government Corruption?

Session 7: Facing the Facts: Security and Privacy and IoT

Smart products like thermostats, digital personal assistants, and fitness trackers can help us organize our lives, homes, and work teams. Yet many of these devices are rushed to market with little consideration for basic data security and privacy protections. The risks range from merely creepy to major safety threats for individuals and national infrastructure.

Jeff Wilbur, technical director at the Internet Society, offered an overview of what’s driving the lack of security and privacy in many Internet of Things (IoT) products, and described efforts to improve safety and consumer awareness.

Wilbur shared a “trust framework” from his organization’s Online Trust Alliance initiative to help consumers, businesses, and governments adopt responsible IoT practices.

Dive Deeper:

Session 8: Algorithms and Social Spaces

Computational algorithms, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) are increasingly being deployed by civil society organizations and others . Mimi Onuhoa and Diana Nucera wrote A People’s Guide to AI as a beginner's guide to understanding AI and the cultural effects of algorithms. They led a workshop to demonstrate how algorithms in social spaces can exclude and prioritize certain people, and what algorithmic accountability can look like in practice.

Onuhoa and Necera began by asking the audience what they think of when they hear the term AI.

The audience then participated in an exercise to build an algorithm using publicly available data that would find the 10 most fun and interesting people at the conference to invite to a party.

The exercise was a lesson in algorithms’ limitations. Of course, it's subjective to figure out what or who is fun and interesting. Data like how many Facebook followers you have, what restaurants you’ve reviewed on Yelp, and your employment and education history on LinkedIn tell just one part of the story. People may not have access to the internet and for that reason would be excluded automatically.

Dive Deeper:

Session 9: The Transformative Power of Predictive Analytics

Social sector organizations are developing methods of implementing predictive analytics to help address inequities in their work.

Parag Gupta, vice president of the Stupski Foundation, and Jeff Gold, assistant vice chancellor at California State University, shared a case study of how public higher education institutions are successfully using predictive analytics to increase graduation rates and close the achievement and opportunity gaps between low-income and underrepresented minority students and their peers.

Predictive analytics can help organizations iterate rapidly, become more transparent and precise, and may help pinpoint opportunities for cost savings. In 2018, Cal State graduation rates were the highest they’ve ever been while equity gaps also narrowed. Still, many disparities remain.

Using these data tools also has its challenges, Gupta outlined:

The first step to getting started is figuring out if leadership has bought in. “It’s less about the technology being the savior than having the leadership on board,” Gupta said.

Dive Deeper:

Session 10: Meet the 2017 Digital Impact Grantees

The Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford PACS runs the Digital Impact initiative to support digital infrastructure for civil society and help social sector practitioners and policymakers use digital resources safely, ethically, and effectively for maximum impact.

The 2017 cohort of Digital Impact grantees presented their projects, ranging from creating plain-language versions of laws for vulnerable communities to gamifying security training for human rights defenders.

Julie Broome, director of a Ariadne, a network of European funders supporting social change and human rights, discussed the need for a decision-making framework for how philanthropic organizations share and store grants data—and how that framework must involve grantees.

Session 11: Closing Keynote: The Viral Versus the Vital 

As co-founder of #GivingTuesday, Henry Timms has thought a lot about harnessing the energy of the digital world for positive change. Timms, the incoming president and CEO of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, former president of 92Y, and coauthor of New Power, closed out the conference by challenging the audience members to consider their responsibilities as individuals, organizations, and a society in how they live their digital lives.

He presented a Hippocratic Oath for how we present ourselves digitally—a pledge to be kind, check sources for anything sensational, unplug once in a while, and even share the occasional cat pic.

The social sector has an immense opportunity to create digital communities that give people a meaningful role in our society—spaces where they can be heard and be part of a collective vision and narrative, Timms said.

“People want to be part of a larger mission and larger idea,” he said. “Every day we need to be doing things that are more participatory.”

Dive Deeper:

  • Read a review of New Power from the Summer 2018 issue of SSIR.
  • “The idea that technology and innovation are solely the province of new organizations is a myth.” Read an SSIR article in which Timms and Asha Curran,  chief innovation officer and director of the Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact at 92Y, share their lessons on innovating within established organizations.