Breakout #9: Data as a public good

Knight Media Learning Seminar Breakout #9

Facilitator: Lucy Bernholz, Visiting Scholar, Stanford University
Scribe: Cynthia Ragland, Vice President, Marketing & Communications, Orange County Community Foundation

Questions that interests Lucy:


·      What’s public

·      What’s private

·      Who decides?

Civil societies are legal creatures built on two assumptions:

1. Money is the asset that matters.

2. The places that we gather are governed by laws of the land, but the truth is they are determined by the terms of systems you are using.

In reality, data is an asset that matters. Where we do it (the information we create) and what we do it with (tools) have changed. The nature of ideas and data do not travel (unlike money, which moves and is transferred when exchanged). 

Cool thinker: Jason Silva “Radical Openness” You Tube video for TedGlobal 2012

Understanding digital “stuff” is critical as we think about ourselves as a society. Here are examples of a few nonprofits set up for data management:

·      Open GLAM – shares digitized version of the artifact (for museums)

·      Digital Public Library of America – launching in April; sharing meta data about books, local history and artifacts

·      Crisis Commons – Took off in 2010 after Haiti earthquake. Techies providing info to first responders post-crisis, all volunteer. Did not want foundation money or weight of a nonprofit structure. Open source (“not owned by everybody”).

“Your DNA will be your data” – it is everywhere! There is a system in place for individuals to come together of their own accord to do things in the public interest. What’s missing: where we can donate data for public interest.

Impact investing – investing in social good; data shifts the frame and the actors.

Private Data in the Public Interest

Open data

 Data privacy

Public interest

New norms

 New forms = donate data in the public interest

Confusion of privacy and public good. These both matter. Are you serving public interest? Did you ask the person from whom you got the data (privacy issue)?

Resource: fosters citizen engagement, access to public data. Users can compare budgetary items (for police,  fire, etc.)  and crime statistics by zip code.

Transparency can be a concern for providers of data. When a foundation asks a nonprofit for data, the NPO may be concerned about where/how it will be used. This can be a barrier.

Resource:  Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University paper on intellectual property of foundations.

Resource: Raw Data is an Oxymoron – collecting data is subjective process; new set of skills are required for processing data.

Organizations like foundations must be mindful about whether they are a credible messenger.

Some organizations are scared to open up data. The risks include bad publicity, loss of competitive advantage, maintenance costs. Foundations/funders can set requirements that grantees are data-savvy; have a data-savvy board member; or bring in experts from outside.

As for partners, state and federal archives are not to be overlooked. You don’t need to keep or share all data. Libraries and local universities may have a better technology and infrastructure. We need to aim to be good digital stewards.

Resource:  Rockefeller Archive Center

Many foundations and nonprofits are interested in community engagement, however, for some privacy/anonymity is more of a priority. The more transparency requirements put on foundations, the more donor dollars will flow elsewhere. This is seen in the rise of donor-advised funds and donors’ desire to remain anonymous.

How do we get better dialogue between people who have data skills and those who want to publish it? Why do they want to put the data out there?

A question for community foundations and nonprofits: what is their role in data marketplace? Sustainability and scale are key.

Is it a role for social sector / foundations to step into data economy?

As for the role of the social sector, many foundations are assuming roles previously handled by government (e.g. foundations taking over portions of managing a city, such as Detroit). As government is backing off, we need to make sure we are being attentive to these questions.

Data is a new frontier. As we work to colonize the territory, we are establishing new norms and new forms.

The advantage foundations and nonprofits have is that this is a blank space. Organizations are working to protect first amendment rights to free speech (data / user-generated content). Creative Commons, which is thinking about alternate licensing forms, is getting close to this.  

Foundations that want to open up dialogue about data can be the ones to take on new norms, new forms. They have built in trust with their donors. These leaders can drive forward hyper-local community change and say “here is how we can do it.” 

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit