For #BuildItBackBetter, NationSwell asked some of our nation’s most celebrated purpose-driven leaders how they’d build a society that is more equitable and resilient than the one we had before COVID-19. We have compiled and lightly edited their answers.
Data use and ownership is concentrated in a few tightly held hands. Those few hands make decisions about how the data of billions of individuals is used, re-used and shared. Who owns our data and what they do with it are perhaps the two most important questions of our age. Asking individuals to become their own data stewards is asking too much — between baffling usage agreements, online scraping, and more. We need institutions to step forward.
Nonprofits are uniquely positioned to serve this role. As charitable organizations, they are already holders of the public trust. They also have the capacity (with a little work) to understand data at an institutional level – identifying relationships between the harms or vulnerabilities they fight and the population they serve. To see just a few examples of that, look to health-oriented nonprofits that advocate for delivery of federal services based on census data or environmental nonprofits that can monitor air quality and pollution.
In a world where data has become a driver of both opportunity and vulnerability, nonprofits across the spectrum of social change need to equip themselves to serve as champions for data used in just and equitable ways. To build it back better, they must become data guardians for the constituencies they serve.
We see the problem in the “Asterisk Nation” — a name coined by the National Congress of American Indians to describe Indigenous populations who were represented so poorly in federal data sets that they were simply described with an asterisk. The Congress advocates for “accurate, meaningful, and timely data collection in American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities.”
We’re beginning to see how cooperatives and nonprofits like NCAI are stepping forward to become data advocates and take control of data gathering and stewardship in these communities to present a new face to federal service providers, and to demand what is just. This same model could happen across the data landscape if we equip nonprofits with this capacity.
Investment in nonprofits to build data capacity, to understand the interplay between data stewardship and their core missions, and to equip them to become effective advocates can rebalance the existing power dynamic of data stewardship – to move voice and agency into the hands of public institutions, and ultimately into the hands of individuals themselves. For non-profits, it means building data capacity and maturity, whether that is done internally or through partnership. New programs and projects should integrate data planning, stewardship and advocacy — and seek support for these functions. For philanthropy, it means recognizing that building these data capacities is critical for programmatic success and prioritizing support for these efforts.
Among the challenges we should aim to overcome is any sensibility that would suggest data and technology are either too complex to understand, or outside of our control and responsibility. We can make progress on this by first developing our shared vocabulary for what data is, how it’s generated and why and how data is used in the world.
Vilas Dhar is President of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and Patrick McGovern is a founding Trustee. The foundation is a 21st century philanthropy advancing artificial intelligence (AI) and data solutions to create a thriving, equitable and sustainable future for all.