The objectivity paradox


Jacob Harold


In an era of fake news, filter bubbles, and sock puppets one could be forgiven for doubting the idea of a shared reality. But we live on a planet made of actual, physical matter. There are, in fact, galaxies and rivers and honeybees. 

Civil society is also real. Living, breathing human beings devote their time and bodies and resources to try to make the world better. There are data points about these people, their organisations, and what they do. ‘Data’ is not the same as ‘truth.’ But even in a conflict-ridden world, data can offer a glimpse of something real.

The platforms that serve civil society have not been spared hard choices in this fraught moment. Online giving platforms have found it impossible to avoid decisions about who gets to transact and how. They face what GlobalGiving has called the ‘neutrality paradox’: even open platforms will be forced to take a stand.

At Candid, we have found that online information platforms face a related challenge. Let’s call it the ‘objectivity paradox.’

The objectivity paradox is a devilishly simple tension: data exist but the presentation of data requires choices. At Candid, we do not claim an objectivity that transcends social context. Instead, we strive for impartiality in our presentation of data. We try to live up to this ideal of impartiality through a variety of practices, including (1) consistent methodologies, (2) clear sourcing, (3) presentation of context, and (4) the inclusion of multiple perspectives.

Below, we discuss four examples of how an information platform like Candid wrestles with the objectivity paradox.

Design. Design choices reflect beliefs about what is most important. For example, on Candid’s platform, we display program information before financial information. Programs are the reason nonprofits exist; we see nonprofit finances as a means toward the end of mission impact.  In our design choices, we seek to be honest about our framing but impartial about the data itself.

Perspective. Different perspectives on civil society offer angles on a broader picture. Consider a donor looking at an individual nonprofit organisation. Financial data found in government records offers one view of that organisation. Self-reported data about programs offers another. The opinions of constituents offer a third view. We see the presentation of multiple perspectives as form of impartiality. The challenge facing an information platform like Candid is to bring together multiple sources of data without overwhelming the user.

Questions. More than 200,000 nonprofits have updated their profile on Candid.  In doing so, they answer a set of questions that we believe help to round out understanding an organisation. We—in consultation with partners—had to choose what questions to ask. And we chose to ask about governance and measurement and demographics because we believe these things are important.  The answers to the questions, though, are up to those that provide the data.

Context. Our Foundation Maps tool displays data about grants geographically. We offer ‘layers’ that show data like poverty rate, education level, or concentration of veterans. We believe each of these layers reflects relevant context, context that might steer a decision by a donor or a policymaker. But we leave it to our users to choose how they want to bring in these layers of additional information.

In every case, we acknowledge that our choices reflect beliefs about what types of information are relevant. But we strive to be impartial about the actual presentation of that information.

Our job is to present data. We have an obligation to do so with as much thoughtfulness, care, and input as possible. In the end, we seek to empower our users to interpret those data as best they can.

Even as human society grasps for a common sense of truth, we at Candid hold fast to the belief that information matters. And we trust that good people can use good data to make better decisions.

Jacob Harold is Executive Vice President at Candid

Tagged in: neutrality paradox

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