Posts Tagged ‘nonprofit organizations’

In the mix…nonprofit technology failures; not counting religion; medical privacy after death; and the business of open data

Friday, August 20th, 2010

1) Impressive nonprofit transparency around technology failures. It might seem odd for us to highlight technology failures when we’re hoping to make CDP and its technology useful to nonprofits, but the transparency demonstrated by these nonprofits talking openly about their mistakes is precisely the kind of transparency we hope to support.  If nonprofits, or any other organization, is going to share more of their data with the public, they have to be willing to share the bad with the good, all in the hope of actually doing better.

2) I was really surprised to find out the U.S. Census doesn’t ask about religion.  It’s a sensitive subject, but is it really more sensitive than race and ethnicity, which the U.S. Census asks about quite openly?  The article goes through why having a better count of different religions could be useful to a lot of people. What are other things we’re afraid to count, and how might that be holding us back from important knowledge?

3) How long should we protect people’s privacy around their medical history? HHS proposes to remove protections that prevent researchers and archivists from accessing medical records for people who have been dead for 50 years; CDT thinks this is a bad idea.  Is there a way that this information can be made available without revealing individual identity?  That’s the essential problem the datatrust is trying to solve.

4) It may be counterintuitive, but open data can foster industry and business. Clay Johnson, formerly at the Sunlight Foundation, writes about how weather data, collected by the U.S. government, became open data, thereby creating a whole new industry around weather prediction.  As he points out, though, that $1.5 billion industry is now not that excited by the National Weather Service expanding into providing data directly to citizens.

We at CDP have been talking about how the datatrust might change the business of data.  We think that it could enable all kinds of new business and new services, but it will likely change how data is bought and sold.  Already, the business of buying and selling data has changed so much in the past 10 years.  Exciting years ahead.

Google buys Metaweb: Can corporations acquire the halo effect of the underdog?

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Google recently bought Metaweb, a major semantic web company.  The value of Metaweb to Google is obvious — as ReadWriteWeb notes, “For the most part,…Google merely serves up links to Web pages; knowing more about what is behind those links could allow the search giant to provide better, more contextual results.” But what does the purchase mean for Metaweb?

Big companies buy small companies all the time.  Some entrepreneurs create their start-ups with that goal in mind — get something going and then make a killing when Google buys it.  But what do you think of a company when it seems to be doing something different and then is bought by Google?

Metaweb was never a nonprofit, but like Wikipedia, it has had a similar, community-driven vibe.  Freebase, its database of entities, is crowd-sourced, open, and free.  Google promises that Freebase will remain free, but will the community of people who contribute to Freebase feel the same contributing free labor to a mega-corporation?  Is there anything keeping Google from changing its mind in the future about keeping Freebase free?  How will the culture of Metaweb change as its technologies evolve within Google?

This isn’t to say that Metaweb’s goals have necessarily been compromised by its purchase by Google.   Many people feel like this is the best thing that could have happened to the semantic web.

(Though a few feel, “They didn’t make it big. In fact, this means they failed at their mission of better organizing the world’s information so that rich apps could be built around it. They never got to the APPS part. FAIL!”, and at least one person is concerned Google bought Freebase to kill it.)

But what did you think when Google bought the nonprofit Gapminder, of Hans Rosling’s famous TED talk?

Or when eBay bought a 25% stake in Craigslist?

Or outside the tech world, when Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s?

Can a company or organization maintain any high-minded mission to be driven by principles other than profit when they’re bought by a major publicly held corporation?

This isn’t just an abstract question for us.  One of the biggest reasons why we chose to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization is that we wanted to make sure no one running the Common Data Project would be tempted to sell its greatest asset, the data it hopes to bring together, for short-term profit.  As a nonprofit, CDP is not barred from making profits, but no profits can inure to the benefit of any private individual or shareholder.  Also as a nonprofit, should CDP dissolve, it cannot merely sell its assets to the highest bidder but must transfer them to another nonprofit organization with a similar mission.

We’re still working on understanding the legal distinctions between IRS-recognized tax-exempt organizations and for-profit businesses.  We were surprised when we first found out that Gapminder, a Swedish nonprofit, had been bought by Google.  Swedish nonprofit law may differ from U.S. nonprofit law.  But it appears Hans Rosling did not stand to make a dime.  Google only bought the software and the website, and whatever that was worth went to the organization itself.  So in a way, the experience of Gapminder supports the idea that being a nonprofit does make a difference in restricting the profit motives of individuals.  Alex Selkirk, as the founder and President of CDP, will never make a windfall through CDP.

The fact that CDP is not profit-driven, and will never be profit-driven makes a difference to us.  Does it make a difference to you?

In the mix…new organizational structures, giant list of data brokers, governments sharing citizens’ financial data, and what IT security has to do with Lady Gaga

Friday, July 9th, 2010

1) More on new kinds of organizational structures for entities that want to form for philanthropic purposes but not fit into the IRS definition of a nonprofit.

2) CDT shone a spotlight on Spokeo, a data broker last week.  Who are other data brokers? Don’t be shocked, there are A LOT of them.  What they do, they mainly do out of the spotlight shone on companies like Facebook, but with very real effects.  In 2005, ChoicePoint sold data to identity thieves posing as a legitimate business.

3) The U.S. has come to an agreement with Europe on sharing finance data, which the U.S. argues is an essential tool of counterterrorism.  The article doesn’t say exactly how these investigations work, whether specific suspects are targeted or whether large amounts of financial data are combed for suspicious activity.  It does make me wonder, given how data crosses borders more easily than any other resource, how will Fourth Amendment protections in the U.S. (and similar protections in other countries) apply to these international data exchanges?  There is also this pithy quote:

Giving passengers a way to challenge the sharing of their personal data in United States courts is a key demand of privacy advocates in Europe — though it is not clear under what circumstances passengers would learn that their records were being misused or were inaccurate.

4) Don’t mean to focus so much on scary data stuff, but 41% of IT professionals admit to abusing privileges.  In a related vein, it turns out a disgruntled soldier accused of illegally downloading classified data managed to do it by disguising his CDs as Lady Gaga CDs.  Even better,

He was able to avoid detection not because he kept a poker face, they said, but apparently because he hummed and lip-synched to Lady Gaga songs to make it appear that he was using the classified computer’s CD player to listen to music.

The New York Times is definitely getting cheekier.

In the mix…philanthropic entities, who’s online doing what, data brokers, and data portability

Monday, July 5th, 2010

1) Mimi and I are constantly discussing what it means to be a nonprofit organization, whether it’s a legal definition or a philosophical one.  We both agree, though, that our current system is pretty narrow, which is why it’s interesting to see states considering new kinds of entities, like the low-profit LLC.

2) This graphic of who’s online and what they’re doing isn’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but I like the way it breaks down the different ways to be online.  (via FlowingData) At CDP, as we work on creating a community for the datatrust, we want to create avenues for different levels of participation.  I’d be curious to see this updated for 2010, and to see if and how people transition from being passive userd to more active userd of the internet.

3) CDT has filed a complaint against Spokeo, a data broker, alleging, “Consumers have no access to the data underlying Spokeo’s conclusions, are not informed of adverse determinations based on that data, and have no opportunity to learn who has accessed their profiles.” We’ve been wondering when people would start to look at data businesses, which have even less reason to care about individuals’ privacy than businesses with customers like Google and Facebook.  We’re interested to see what happens.

4) The Data Portability Project is advocating for every site to have a Portability Policy that states clearly what data visitors can take in and take out. The organization believes “a lot more economic value could be created if sites realized the opportunity of an Internet whose sites do not put borders around people’s data.” (via Techcrunch)  It definitely makes sense to create standards, though I do wonder how standards and icons like the ones they propose would be useful to the average internet user.

Common Data Project looking for a partner organization to open up access to sensitive data.

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Looking for a partner...

The Common Data project is looking for a partner organization to develop and test a pilot version of the datatrust: a technology platform for collecting, sharing and disclosing sensitive information that provides a new way to guarantee privacy.

Funders are increasingly interested in developing ways for nonprofit organizations to make more use of data and make their data more public. We would like to apply with a partner organization for a handful of promising funding opportunities.

We at CDP have developed technology and expertise that would enable a partner organization to:

  1. Collect sensitive data from members, donors and other stakeholders in a safe and responsible manner;
  2. Open data to the public to answer policy questions, be more transparent and accountable, and inform public discourse.

We are looking for an organization that is both passionate about its mission and deeply invested in the value of open data to provide us with a targeted issue to address.

We are especially interested in working with data that is currently inaccessible or locked down for privacy reasons.

We can imagine, in particular, a couple of different scenarios in which an organization could use the datatrust in interesting ways, but ultimately, we are looking to work out a specific scenario together.

  • A data exchange to share sensitive information between members.
  • An advocacy tool for soliciting private information from members so that organizational policy positions can be backed up with hard data.
  • A way to share sensitive data with allies in a way that doesn’t violate individual privacy.

If you’re interested in learning more about working with us, please contact Alex Selkirk at alex [dot] selkirk [at] commondataproject [dot] org.

What kind of institution do we want to be?

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Apparently, everyone wants to be a nonprofit these days.

As this New York Times article describes, the broad and elastic definition of a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization has allowed the Internal Revenue Service to approve 99% of applications last year.  (And I had been so proud of our tax-exempt status!)  The new nonprofits include the Woohoo Sistahs, a social club that raises money for cancer research and other causes, and the Red Nose Institute, an organization that sends red clown noses to American troops serving abroad.  The proliferation of nonprofit organizations has a real impact on the country — each donation to a tax-exempt organization represents a loss in tax revenue to a government struggling to pay for two wars, healthcare reform, and economic stimulus.

As we’ve noted before, it’s not enough to offer services for free or to have no revenues.  Most people think “nonprofit” must “do good,” but that’s not a very useful definition.  There are lots of for-profit businesses that “do good,” as well as plenty of inefficient nonprofits that “do good” very badly (and I’m not even counting the fraudulent nonprofits that “do bad”).  “Nonprofit” can’t be defined by “no profits” either.  Many businesses aren’t profitable for years, and as this article by the same writer suggests, how is a poor, revenue-less alternative energy organization that hopes to eventually sell the technologies it develops different from Apple or Microsoft in their start-up stages?

So we know that in building our reputation as a trustworthy organization, it’s not enough just to declare, “Trust us, we’re a nonprofit!”  We really really care about what kind of organization, what kind of institution we’re going to be.  We’ve talked previously about how we decided to incorporate as a nonprofit, but now, it’s time to talk about other organizational models and ideas we want to learn from, whether or not they’re nonprofits.

As we study these institutions and how they work, we hope both to be able to better explain to others what we want to be (“We’re like a ____ for data!”) and to better understand ourselves what we need to do to get there.  Over the next couple of posts, we’re going to share some of our ideas, and we hope you’ll test us vigorously.


A. We want to be a bank for personal information, so you don’t have to put your personal information under your mattress.

We put our money in the bank for a number of reasons.  It’s safer than putting it under our mattresses, and at least up to FDIC limits, we know we won’t lose it.  It’s more convenient than carrying around wads of cash—remember what it was like to travel abroad before you could use foreign ATMs?  There are services banks provide, like interest, checkbooks, debit cards, and more.  And whether or not it’s a motivating force for individual account holders, banks make the economy run because funds are more easily moved around.

We want putting data into a datatrust to feel as easy, secure, and normal as putting money in the bank.  Although personal information is not like money, we think that the datatrust could do a lot of what a bank does for its account holders.  Account holders would have the ability to control how their information is shared.  They would know what is in the datatrust, as easily as we can check now online how much is in our bank account.  Although they may not get interest in a monetary sense, they would gain access to the information of others in the datatrust, once properly aggregated and secured.  Information would flow more easily when it becomes something that can be controlled.

One thing we want to avoid though is the conflict of interest that can arise when banks make decisions to enrich their shareholders rather than to benefit their account holders.  Which brings us to the next section.

B. We want to be a credit union for personal information, where the goal is to serve members, not a third party that pays the bills.

Credit unions are not as widespread as banks, and so are not as convenient in that your workplace credit union will not have ATMs across the country.  However, credit unions serve many of the same functions as banks but through an inherently different structure.

Credit unions are member-owned and member-governed organizations.  The credit union’s board consists of volunteers elected by the credit union’s members.  Credit unions generally offer better rates and lower fees than conventional banks.  Because credit unions are meant to serve its members, people tend to trust credit unions more than banks.

Although the Common Data Project is not strictly a member-based 501(c)(3), we’re interested in the member-based structure of credit unions.  We certainly want those who donate data to the datatrust to feel like the datatrust exists in their interest and that they are part of a community, even if that community is not limited to a preexisting defined group the way credit union membership is limited.  We’re exploring ways for individuals donating data to the datatrust to be involved in governing the datatrust on multiple levels.

What does it mean to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization?

Thursday, August 13th, 2009


The Common Data Project is pleased to announce that we have been officially recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization! In other words, your donation to CDP is now tax-deductible, and you can donate to us here.

But what does it really mean to be a nonprofit organization? And what does it mean for us at the Common Data Project?

A nonprofit organization is an organization that is motivated by goals other than the making of a profit. It’s a pretty circular definition, I know. Being a nonprofit doesn’t mean that an organization can’t make money. Yale University, for example, is a nonprofit, and the people who manage its endowment have made it very, very rich. And an organization certainly isn’t a nonprofit just because it offers services for free. Many of Google’s services are free, and it is clearly not a nonprofit.

The definition of the type of nonprofit recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code is a little more specific. The organization must be organized for one or more tax exempt purposes, which include “charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.”

We applied for recognition as an organization with a primarily educational purpose, as we work to change public perception and understanding of privacy issues and how they impact our ability to share information. But the IRS’s definition of a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization doesn’t quite encompass who we are and why we are a nonprofit.

First and foremost, the datatrust we envision must have a public-serving mission, rather than a profit-driven motive.

We know that we could be a business that provides information services. We have no illusions that a nonprofit necessarily does more “good” than a business.  But we plan to build a datatrust, a repository for anonymized datasets that are available for useful and innovative applications by the general public.  We are trying to create a completely new model for data collection, where the people who donate data also get the value of data in return.  A datatrust that is built on the goals of sharing, transparency, and accountability cannot accept the donations of people and organizations and then monetize that data for profit.

Of course, it’s not enough to declare that the datatrust will benefit the public, nor is it enough to be recognized as a 501(c)(3) organization by the IRS.

We’ll have to work hard to create a datatrust that everyone can believe in. In the same way museums, public libraries, and even online spaces like Wikipedia imbue its users with a feeling of public sharing and respect, we hope the datatrust will engender a sense of community.

You can read more about our goals here, but ultimately, we hope to have a continuing dialogue with you on our goals and our plans as we keep working to create a trustworthy, transparent datatrust organization.

Bringing the power of data to nonprofit organizations

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Over the last six months, I’ve had the privilege to interview a dozen people working with various nonprofit organizations, as well as a few agencies, about how they work with data.  They’ve candidly shared with me the data they collect (or try to collect) and the challenges they face in getting as much out of data as possible.  I’ve talked to people who work locally, nationally, and internationally; with people who do everything from workforce development to HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa.

Businesses have always known that data is valuable.  They’ve also had the money and resources to use the latest tools to collect and analyze data.  Walmart was at the forefront of using computers to track its inventory; Google and other internet companies are now at the forefront of using cookies to gather more than we ever believed was possible.

Nonprofits have been a little slower to recognize that data is not just for people who are trying to make a profit.  But as nonprofits compete for funding and donors seek more accountability for what nonprofits do with their money, it’s become almost trendy for nonprofits to try to think more like businesses about their data.  Whether they’re national advocacy organizations or more localized neighborhood groups providing basic services, nonprofits are starting to realize that data might be valuable for their missions, too.

In the course of interviewing these nonprofits, though, it’s become increasingly obvious to me that nonprofits might have a chance to one-up business in changing the way data gets collected, analyzed, and used.

The reason we at CDP are interested in learning more about the ways nonprofits use data now is because we think they could be major users and contributors to the “datatrust,” a safe and secure place to share, and not just hoard, sensitive information.

This would be probably come as a surprise to many of the people I talked to.  The few that were very proud of their data collection felt as proprietary towards their data as Google or Microsoft would. And the ones that aren’t so proud are struggling with yellowing paper files or inflexible Excel spreadsheets.  The thought of being at the forefront of anything would be mind-boggling.

But the one thing they all had in common was that they wanted more data.  Almost everyone could think of some data source that wasn’t available to them, whether from government agencies or administrative courts. In many cases, the reason for withholding that data was to protect the privacy of individuals in that data set.  Many of them could also think of things they wanted to count but were having trouble counting now, from the best ways to improve outcomes to better understanding their target populations.

We at CDP believe that the best way to get data is to give data (see our experimental online data collection forum!)  And many nonprofit organizations are in a great position to get data by giving data.

First, nonprofits have limited resources.  One organization, unless it’s incredibly wealthy, can only collect so much information.  A safe, secure place for allies to share information, i.e., crowd-source, could help nonprofits get answers to long-standing questions.

Is that immigration judge really denying 99% of all asylum cases before him?  How long is it taking the New York State Department of Labor to process wage claims?  Given that much of this information isn’t available anyway, any information would be better than no information.

And more information could give nonprofits increased leverage to demand more information from government agencies.  Some nonprofits already have strong networks of members or allies.  A better way to collect data is all they need to maximize resources they already have.

Second, nonprofits have fundamentally different goals than businesses.  Their mission, whether it’s to save the whales or to provide job training to former inmates, is about the public good.  Given that they are run with donations from the public, many nonprofits have taken this to heart and decided that they need to be more transparent.  Even though transparency often seems to be limited to disclosure of annual IRS filings, a datatrust could bring transparency to a new level.  A nonprofit could choose not only to declare their job training program a success in its annual report, it could also choose to disclose the data through the datatrust for others to analyze.  Transparency could push nonprofits to be better at what they do, which would benefit all of us.

Certainly, a CDP datatrust won’t solve all nonprofit data problems.  We’re not trying to get into the business of nonprofit data management.  But there are amazing opportunities to harness the power of online data collection to make the world a better place, and not just target advertising more accurately.

We’re still thinking it through.  We’re continuing our interviews and learning with each one more about the particular goals and challenges nonprofits face in using data.  And the more we learn, the more exciting it is to think about what could happen when the power of data is available for all of us, and not just major corporations.

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