Data philanthropy and beyond


Zibran Choudhury


How do you create a ‘data strategy’ and leverage it for public good when data trends are constantly shifting? It’s quite the task but a panel of thought-leaders at the European Foundation Centre Annual General Assembly argued that philanthropy may be uniquely positioned to set the agenda.

The conversation started with a simple question: what is the role philanthropy? Stefan Verhulst of GovLab, started by describing the potential entry points for the sector. Firstly, data as an asset – how can philanthropic organisations enrich the existing data they have? Secondly, data as a tool for improving philanthropic enterprises and scoping the needs and the supply side to find solutions. Thirdly, data as funding and as a tool for activism. Finally, data policy and developing it to include digital policies. Co-panellist, Lucy Bernholz of Digital Civil Society Lab, added we also need to ask who is governing this data and how. ‘Through the creation of new institutional forms that are outside companies and governments. Philanthropy needs to invest and create these institutions or they will be invented on us.’

Richard Benjamins, of Telefonica, provided a perspective from outside the sector, and discussedthe use of ‘aggregated anonymity data’ which has already been used to examine the spread of disease in natural disasters but preemptively warned of scepticism.

‘The big challenge is how do we use data for social good but there are other complex questions. What’s in the public interest? What’s free and entitled to a commercial cost? In order to do it at scale, data philanthropy isn’t enough.’

Anne Bouverot, of the Abeona Foundation, agreed with the sentiment ‘If you really want to scale something you need to reach a huge amount people. There are not enough companies and it will be difficult for a company to do it at scale without it being perceived as self-interest.’ However, Bouverout did share a successful example, when describing the MasterCard Foundation’s work on financial inclusion where they worked with financial technology companies and financial service providers.

Lucy Bernholz queried whether we haven’t collectively thought about building the infrastructure to create change at scale, and suggested the next step would be the digital policy agenda, ‘UK parliament, US representatives, and large companies need to commit to sharing their data as part of their responsibility.’ While Anne Bouverot, spoke of the value of education, ‘We need to make sure we reaching the people who will become future data engineers and coders.’

Despite the challenges of scale and the hesitancy to work with large corporations, the session did end on a hopeful note as the panel highlighted a growing sense of responsibility around data and it’s use, ‘More and more we’re asking what is the impact regardless of the algorithms. There is a whole movement on being responsible,’ said Richard Benjamin, ‘There are now leaders in this movement.’

Zibran Choudhury is Communication and Circulation Officer at Alliance magazine

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