Data for what?

Maria Chertok

As I see it, the key tension when it comes to data is between the general desire to have data about everything in all possible detail and its ultimate usability. The most popular generic project idea in data development is creating a database and making it available online for everyone’s use. I come across projects like this in different philanthropy-related areas every other month. Their creators sincerely believe that a database will foster transparency and cooperation, help to avoid duplication, and generally solve pretty well all the problems of the sector. I am not so sure.

There is this widely known saying: ‘When you’ve seen one foundation – you’ve seen one foundation.’ The greatest difficulty for collecting data about foundations is that they are all so different that generalizations hardly work. I am part of a Russian Donors Forum working group that is developing a framework for mapping Russian foundations so as to have reliable data about the philanthropic sector in Russia. To come up with a universal questionnaire, we had to abandon a lot of important details: either the questions were not sufficiently widely applicable or we knew that foundations would not be able to provide the information for technical reasons or the information would not be comparable. But details are important! So when we collect data and present them in an aggregated form or according to a general standard, we may end up with ‘average temperature in a hospital’, losing important details or losing the point altogether.

Next Special feature to read

Where next after Bellagio?

Rob Garris