PACS news/November 5, 2019

Digital Impact: Reflections from London

Digital Impact London took place in the midst of a week that had everyone in Europe asking questions about the present and the future – including a deadly building fire, a terrorist attack against a mosque, and an electoral shakeup amidst planning for the UK’s changing role in Europe. Londoners famously “carry on”, and the Digital Impact discussion at Imperial College on June 16 was firmly rooted in a pragmatic sense of both current capacity and coming opportunities.

Our hosts from the Data Science Institute at Imperial College provided an inspirational venue to consider the group’s collective potential. A mix of participants from nonprofits, capacity building networks, funders, digital rights activists, scholars, and government officials provided a rich array of perspectives. We examined the concept of digital civil society through the lens of individual organizational capacity, the shifting dynamics between civil society actors, and the policy dynamics now emerging between civil society organizations and other sectors.

The United Kingdom’s long commitment to open data and its relatively accessible digital infrastructure (at least in urban areas) meant that there were many overlapping networks represented in the room, but we still met our goal of introducing people to new colleagues and groups and weaving together existing communities. We were particularly delighted that participants came from several hours to the west and north of London, giving us an opportunity to explore geographic variation in resources and issues. This is a concern in every place we go – the cities we visit tend to be more well-resourced than the outlying areas. As we did in Toronto and are planning for Brisbane, including voices beyond the “usual suspects” makes for much more valuable discussions.

The insights in London were abundant. This group produced the most robust set of resources – both existing and still lacking – of any event so far. I have organized the following reflections across three layers of change – organizational, sectoral, societal – that were reflected in the day’s discussions.


Organizational-level insights

Many of the organizational-level insights we heard reflected the idea that digital capacity is shaped by two dimensions: organizational hierarchies and time. People from all sorts of organizations acknowledged that digital dependencies are a central characteristic of their work, not a peripheral one. This means that everyone in an organization, from board members to front desk administrators and from volunteers to executives, needs to better understand the nature and pervasiveness of digital resources. There were calls for funders to both require and support digital strategies as core capacities of nonprofits. Digital skills and governance were recognized as central functions of successful organizations, as important as human resources, financial acumen, and legal oversight. At the same time, the digital literacy divide is significant, within organizations and across the sector. Digital affordances amplify existing power differentials, and there is a large swathe of mid-sized organizations struggling between larger, well-resourced ones and smaller, digitally native upstarts.

The second key factor influencing digital capacity was time. A common arc of change we heard throughout the day was that one-off digital pilot projects can serve as “Trojan horses” for cultural change that can generate broader digital capacity initiatives across an organization. These pilot projects begin to raise questions of organizational risk that in turn spark a gradual change in culture. The key point is that, for many nonprofits and civil society organizations, the recognition of how digital resources and dependencies require new skills and capacities often comes about incrimentally and not always deliberately.

This theory of change helped us think in new ways about how digital policy is made. Capacity builders working with nonprofits and funders, as well as professionals and volunteers from within those organizations, can be seen as collectively “peeling onions”, revealing new strata of skills and capacity over time. Many in the room were actively engaged in experiments at building new digital skills. Some recommended core “literacy” activities, such as teaching staff to enter information into Wikipedia or OpenStreetMaps as a means of engaging people in discussions of the nature and politics of online data. Others, such as a co-operative in Manchester, are holding public discussions and debates about organizational policies regarding data ownership and access. Heather Leson spoke of the work being done across 190 chapters of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to uncover and unleash learning resources from inside and outside the network. Sean McDonald of Digital Public and David Bonbright of Feedback Commons considered new kinds of enterprises to manage and govern digital data in the public interest.

Many of the participants and speakers noted the learning that happens when networks or organizations realize that the data sets they’ve built can catalyze new work. This is how datasets of grants become not just learning opportunities for funders but a platform on which to build new tools for grantseekers.


Sector-wide insights

Several of the participants framed the opportunity in London as one of abundance: matching networks of digital talent and activists with civil society organizations, and sharing resources and learning opportunities. Outside of London digital resources are less abundant and accessible to civil society organizations. Yet overall, there seemed to be greater awareness of the opportunities of open data, digital access and digital policy issues than we have heard in other places. There was a shared sense that making better use of events at many UK universities, and connecting #techforgood, open data, and other meetup groups with more formal structures such as DataKind, would be beneficial.

With these opportunities comes a greater need for “translational” relationships. Every session presented a different perspective on this need. Scholars from the Data Science Institute spoke of privacy-protecting approaches to analyzing aggregate data, and the need to “translate” it into practice. Speakers familiar with human rights work at Amnesty International and the University of Essex pointed to the importance of cross-disciplinary teams of computer scientists and lawyers, who have very different definitions of core principles like fairness. Others spoke of the linguistic translations needed for global organizations, the relational translations needed to move new practice through organizational hierarchies, and the positional translation needed when nonprofits or funders work with digital experts. Pushing this a step further, I would argue that digital skills and literacy are not just translational, but integrational. We must assume they are core organizational capacities.

Civil society offers a unique venue in which to develop and test new approaches to privacy, consent, and security in digital practice. The values of the sector both align with and require new approaches. We heard clear enthusiasm for new work on security practices and liabilities that align with the characteristics of digital data.


Policy-level insights

Our public policy conversations in London echoed the group’s optimism about looking for opportunity in challenges. Participants recognized two overarching issues: the coming implementation of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which was also discussed in Brussels, and the Digital Charter elements of the Conservative Party’s political manifesto, which is expected to form the roadmap for governance within the UK following the country’s June general election.

Awareness of the GDPR and its potential impacts varied widely, mirroring the broader UK nonprofit community. The demand for low cost, understandable, and feasible guidance for nonprofit compliance was universal. This might provide an opportunity to leverage work going on in the EU. Even more encouraging was a sense among the London participants that policy compliance may serve as a driver of new learning and action on digital data governance. After all, nothing focuses the mind like the threat of major fines! Not everyone saw this quite so optimistically. Given a few years’ worth of fundraising scandals, new regulations, and changes in oversight of the charity sector there was also a good deal of wariness about the GDPR’s demands and the sector’s ability to meet them.

The Conservative Party’s Digital Charter raised significant concerns for the participants. Calls for additional regulation of the Internet, the extension of limits on malicious speech, and demands that encryption be made illegal were seen as unnecessary, unfeasible, and ignorant of existing (albeit largely unenforced) regulations. A rich discussion ensued over whether the calls contained within the charter are intended to be taken at face value, to be considered as warning shots to industry, or as indicators of other political concerns altogether. The depth of conversation about both the digital and political realities was itself indicative of the extent to which digital policies, from broadband access to internet governance, have become a core pillar of the policy agenda for civil society.

Of the many calls for collective action, two in particular caught my attention. Tris Lumley of New Philanthropy Capital and Anni Rowland-Campbell of Intersticia introduced the idea of a “collective personal data charter” for civil society. As I have long argued that tomorrow’s civil society will be defined by how it manages and governs digital data, this is an intriguing idea. Stay tuned as more emerges on this idea. Another idea highlighted by Heather Leson, called for an organizational-level digital data decision-making simulator, something as simple as a decision tree or a more complex scenario generator. The idea is to help organizations consider the many consequences of choosing to use certain digital data, implement certain policies, or pursue a variety of other strategic options. An early prototype could be brought together by using various organizational planning tools, the wisdom of digital literacy trainers, a few imaginative scenario planners, and, perhaps, some experienced digital innovators. Let us know if you know of anything that might fit the bill.

One final reflection from our time learning from civil society leaders around the world: we have noticed that these discussions are somewhat out of sync with broader public attitudes towards digital data use, and in some cases toward even broader concepts of truth and expertise. We were reminded that we can’t think of digital capacity as a one-way input to the future of civil society. That future will likely be shaped by a tense, dynamic tussle between old and new skills, knowledge and values. We must resist the temptation to advocate data skills and digital literacy as the single central strategic concern for the sector. We can look to the 30 year history of climate change awareness campaigns as a cautionary lesson here. Rational, evidence-based advocacy doesn’t alone drive policy progress. We might instead be better served by seeking to identify and understand the counter-narratives that argue against the wholesale embrace of digital affordances. As with the discussion of the Conservative Party digital charter, the assumption that “the other side” is ignorant has proven, time and again, to be a losing position. Better to assume that their interests are rational and informed, and find ways to encourage digital literacy without taking imperious approaches to data evangelism.