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Why Digital Matters?


Thursday, 7th March 2019 at 8:46 am
Wendy Williams
Dr Lucy Bernholz talks to Wendy Williams about the risks, and the opportunities, for civil society in the digital age, and why we should all be paying more attention to data.


Thursday, 7th March 2019
at 8:46 am
Wendy Williams


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Why Digital Matters?
Thursday, 7th March 2019 at 8:46 am

Dr Lucy Bernholz talks to Wendy Williams about the risks, and the opportunities, for civil society in the digital age, and why we should all be paying more attention to data.

Hands up if you own a mobile phone.

In the room I am sitting in at the Australian Communities Foundation, listening to Dr Lucy Bernholz talk about digital technologies and governance, all hands, bar one, are raised.

It is a visual reminder that we are (nearly) all digitally dependent now. And we are all complicit in the issues she is about to discuss during her visit to Australia.

Bernholz is a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and director of the Digital Civil Society Lab, which investigates the challenges and opportunities for civil society to thrive in the digital age.

One of the messages she is keen to pass on while she is here, is that civil society and philanthropy must “assume digital”.

We have already been shown how reliant everyone in the room is on digital. But some basic follow up questions reveal that while we may all have phones, we generally have little concept of how they work.

“It is quite astonishing to think how much we use this device, how pervasive it is, and how little we understand about what is actually going on there,” Bernholz says.

This goes some way to answering the question of why digital matters to civil society. It matters because in the course of an extremely short time, as individuals, let alone as organisations, we have become almost entirely dependent on it. Yet, we do not understand it.

Moreover, it is a fundamentally different economic resource to what we are used to managing. One that Bernholz says, we are not set up to deal with.

Our economy is designed around the concept of rival goods – goods that can be consumed by only one person at a time.

If you give me a dollar. I have that dollar now. You no longer have the dollar.

All of philanthropy works that way.

However data is very different.

You can give away your data and still have it.

“That is a fundamentally different thing than what we have designed our institutions to manage,” Bernholz explains.

“That’s why it is so disruptive. We actually have to learn how to manage it and we have to think about it in a holistic way.”

It is not just the mobile phone and the data, it is what it does to NGOs, and what it requires of an organisation’s staff or board members. It is about the new policy environments – from intellectual property law to telecommunications regulations – that determine who can participate, “where, when, and at what cost”. It is why we need to question our assumptions about what resources we use for social good and who will benefit.

“We’re catching up to that,” Bernholz says. “We haven’t been there. Most of us have just been thinking, ‘wow, it’s really cool to have a map on my phone, and 5,000 pictures of my dog’.”

It is a theme that Bernholz – who is herself a dog lover and is speaking from experience about the dog photos – often returns to in her annual Blueprint, an industry forecast that provides an overview of the current digital civil society landscape.

The key for not for profits is to think about data as a resource to be managed in line with their mission.

“That starts with how are you collecting it and it might end with, are you destroying it and if so how?” Bernholz says.

She is quick to reassure the room: “You know how to do this. You already do it with money.”

Just as an organisation must manage money in an ethical and compliant manner, so too must it manage data.

Bernholz identifies a number of questions that every organisation should be asking in relation to data governance:

  • How is that working for my organisation?
  • What information are we actually collecting?
  • Where are we keeping it?
  • Who is responsible for it?
  • What are we doing with it?

Part of the problem, as Bernholz sees it, is that the sector has “alloyed together” services and data collection.

The information we gather, store, and exchange electronically and the networks we use to do so are now an integrated part of the way civil society functions.

“We should be designing how we collect it with an eye toward what’s the problem we’re trying to solve. Not just collecting everything we can. That actually requires a much more thoughtful approach,” she tells Pro Bono News.

For a sector that works to serve vulnerable people, the need to manage data safely and ethically should be clear.

“You are trying to move people from vulnerable to less vulnerable, but at the same time you are collecting information on them. And if you are not taking care of that information, and you are storing it on anything as exotic as an excel spreadsheet on a laptop connected to the internet, then you are actually collecting information about them that someone else might want to do harm with. There are a lot of someones,” Bernholz says.

In some cases it is a question of redesigning the data collection process.

Bernholz gives the example of Ask Izzy, a mobile website developed by Infoxchange connecting people in crisis with the services they need, of how organisations can think differently about their data collection.

Ask Izzy has minimised the data it is collecting from the person using the interface. It doesn’t store that information, meaning if “one of the someones” tried to steal the data to identify specific individuals, they wouldn’t be able to.

Bernholz says it requires a shift in thinking.

“The default from the general cultural zeitgeist is collect as much data as possible from who comes to your website, but it doesn’t have to work that way,” she says.

“It may be that when you think this through from the perspective of your mission you say wait, actually we don’t want to be in the business of not providing a service for somebody because they didn’t want to share their data with us.”

It also means that not for profits need to talk to their funders about the data they are requesting –  something Bernholz admits is not easy.

And she is quick to point her finger at the funders, who in her experience are “at best” just reading and filing the information they are putting pressure on not for profits to collect.

“If you really have a plan to use that information to change your strategy or create something new… then okay. Let’s start from ‘this is what we want to accomplish, what data do we need, how can we work together to get it and how can we do it ethically and safely’,” she says.

Beyond what data organisations are collecting, how they look after it, is also a concern.

However while the risks are real, they are addressable.

“And they don’t necessarily involve hundreds and thousands of dollars of technology,” Bernholz says.

“What they do involve is a lot of time working with everybody at your organisation – staff, volunteers, board members, clients or beneficiaries – to understand where there are some wide open doors to data misuse.”

The important thing to remember here, is that everyone is responsible.

While organisations can hire specific people whose responsibility it is to ensure that finances and HR resources are handled in an ethically and compliant way, everyone has access to data, and a lot of our data behaviours – in and out of the office – come from the way we have individually learned how to use these devices.

Still today, 85 per cent of data breaches happen because of bad email practice – people click on a link they shouldn’t.

It bears thinking about what it means when the software and digital infrastructure on which we are dependent are commercially built and government surveilled.

“We’re not used to thinking about how does what we do in our not for profit depend on the rules that the government of Australia has written in treaty with the US about how data should be stored,” Bernholz says.

“That is why this is so important.”

To elaborate her point she uses the analogy of having a landlord.

The infrastructure that allows WiFi to move data, or allows you to communicate with somebody via Facebook on the other side of the planet, that is your landlord.

“You are actually operating in their space. And you didn’t read your lease. I know you didn’t,” she says.

“It is like we have taken all of our activities that we were doing 20 years ago, outside of the walls of commercial corporations and governments – because that is where civil society fits – and we’ve moved it into the house that is literally constructed by, owned by and constantly monitored by, governments and companies – six of whose products you use all day, every day and are based in my backyard.”

Extending the landlord analogy further, one of the challenges is that it is very difficult for civil society to “own their own home”.

Bernholz says what we’re facing is a case of “digital corporate capture”.

“We think about corporate capture in terms of the financing of non-profits and I think what we’re facing is a case of digital corporate capture here. I mean we are operating in their houses and they got us and we have got to get out of there,” she says.

In the environment where we have digital landlords, we also need to negotiate where we are going to draw the lines between transparency and anonymity.

In her 2017 Blueprint, Bernholz wrote: “Democratic political systems are shaped by a norm of transparency, whereas charitable regulations make room for anonymity and privacy.”

She continued: “Although the norms of transparency and anonymity serve separate purposes, the structures we’ve built have begun to overlap.

“When the spheres overlap and boundaries blur, we find ourselves with two systems, designed for distinct purposes, occupying the same space.”

Speaking to Pro Bono News two years on, Bernholz says that in the environment where we have digital landlords, individual people have a right to anonymity and to encryption (“regardless of what your laws say here in Australia”).

“Right now we’re still at the stage of saying well here’s where the line was in the analog age and let’s see how that holds in the digital age and what we’re finding in the States for example, where this problem is really exacerbated by the crazy rules we have about funding politics, the line just doesn’t work,” she says.

According to Bernholz it is time to revisit the whole discussion.

“Because I think we’re either going to lose some of the anonymity for charity in favour of transparency in politics, or some of the transparency in politics in favour of the anonymity and charity. That’s the way you come to a compromise,” she says.

“And from my lived experience in the States, I would rather lose some of the anonymity in charity in favour of more transparency in politics. That’s not the way this conversation is going.”

It is for these reasons that Bernholz feels it is so important for not for profits to understand the laws and policies governing digital, and why they should be involved in policy debate.

If your landlord is Google and Apple, then the laws that say what they are allowed to do are shaping what you are allowed to do.

“And you need to be engaged in that conversation,” Bernholz says.

“That is a big stretch for civil society organisations around the world. But we’re starting to see this… and there is an incredible opportunity to bring together these expertise.”

For Bernholz, that’s “the ballgame right there” – helping economic justice, housing, health, education, arts, youth, environmental groups realise “these rules matter to us”.

It is also a question of democracy.

Our democracy now also has these companies as its landlord, and that should not be okay with you,” she says.

“That’s the large scale, why the digital policy issues matter. Because we still live in democracies, we still have the power to regulate, we still have the power to say, you know, actually no. And Europe just said that to Facebook…Wow!

“We’re not powerless here, but when it comes to that set of policy issues at that scale, it is a democracy question and it is a regulatory question and it is a policy question, and I fully invite you and engage you and encourage you if you care about your organisation continuing, let alone care about democracy continuing, to engage in those conversations.”

For the Digital Civil Society Lab there are four domains of change that civil society needs to push on simultaneously – technological, organisational, legal and social .

“The social is you know, 5,000 photos of your dog on your phone is a bad behaviour to bring into the workplace. Organisational is there are whole new kinds of organisations being created to actually try to address this from data co-ops, to data trusts,” Bernholz says.

“What’s exciting is 10 years from now there’s going to be this other whole thing – let’s use the term ‘trusted data intermediary’, because I don’t know what they’re going to be called – but they’re going to be there because the resource needs to be protected and used for good.”

The reality in 2019 is that it is about compromise.

“You need to figure out which devil’s you are going to make your deals with,” Bernholz says.

For not for profits, choosing their “devil” means going back to their mission.

“Because that’s why you exist. That sounds a little wishy-washy but there’s more strength to that than it might sound like,” she says.

“If you know what you’re trying to accomplish then you can actually decide well this company versus that company, this tool versus that tool, this tool but not that data.

“Lawyers have learned not to put certain things in emails. They’re held to that. You can train your staff to do that and still use the products that are going to allow you to do the work and then you can advocate for different products.”

At the end of the day, most solutions are not going to be technological, they are going to be human.

And we are not powerless.

But we do need to think about why digital matters – we are dependent on it, yet we don’t understand it, we are beholden to landlords whose goals are different to our own, and like it or not, it is shaping the world we are operating in.

It might just make you look at that phone in your hand a little differently.


Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.


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