Exploring Data for Impact

By Benetech, posted on

The world is undergoing a data revolution, and the social sector is no exception. Mobile devices are breaking down the barriers to direct connections to staff, volunteers, clients, partners, communities, and the general public. Social enterprises are collecting more and more data: data about social problems; data about intervention outcomes; data for collective impact; data for learning; data for dashboards to better operate their enterprises; data for funders; and the list goes on. Yet, social enterprises aren’t typically made up of data geeks. They desperately need to use data better and multiply its impact, but they rarely have the skills or infrastructure to do so effectively.

A significant, but neglected, issue is the ethics of data collection and storage. As data collection becomes easier and more widespread, we must remember that so much of the important humanitarian information collected by social enterprises is sensitive. Information about corruption, human rights violations, or individually identifiable data—such as HIV status, experience of violence, age, sex, ethnic origin, political party, medical information, refugee status, sexual orientation, and more—should not fall into the wrong hands. It must be protected from governments, organized crime, and others who may misuse it. As this sensitive data is increasingly stored for long periods of time, we also need to worry about misuse in the future.

So the question arises: how can we use technology to help social entrepreneurs collect and use their data more effectively and securely?

We are exploring this in Benetech Labs , where, together with our partners, we examine the viability of new software-for-good projects, prototype, and test new applications with the potential to deliver large-scale benefits to society. Imagine the impact on social entrepreneurs and their good work if they could easily design and build their own lightweight mobile data collection apps!

The solution we have been exploring is a semi-customized, open source, secure, data collection and analysis application that makes it easier for social sector users to safely gather and use information more efficiently. It will allow organizations to go online and design a mobile app that pulls together the information they need, all with customized branding. For more advanced app requirements, they would start with their application 90-95% done already on the platform. Because it’s all open source, they could then engage any technology group of their choice to customize it to their particular needs.

This app will be built on Benetech’s strongly secure Martus technology stack, which is free and open source and has provided end-to-end encryption for human rights groups and activists for the past ten years. The power of open source means that we work with and build upon best-of-breed technology components, such as strong crypto libraries, the Tor anonymity tool, and others.

How can one app address the requirements of multiple social enterprises? That’s because, on average, when you look at the data collection challenges of social enterprises, they can be tackled in a strikingly similar way, although they may seem to be quite different to the end user.

At this year’s Skoll WorldForum on Social Entrepreneurship, I spoke with a dozen social entrepreneurs, including eight recipients of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, about their need for different mobile data apps to improve their work. Although they each thought their app need was unique, each one was 90-95% the same. The request went like this:

I need an Android application for collecting certain important information, as text/surveys/videos/pictures, from staff/contractors/whistleblowers/clients/the public that I can upload to a server so we can respond/analyze/put on a map/put into a progress report.

Whether it’s Global Witness securely collecting field research on corruption, Fundación Paraguaya’s Poverty Stoplight system having microfinance borrowers assess their own poverty by looking at a pictorial questionnaire on fifty poverty indicators, or Verité’s field inspection teams questioning factory workers about working conditions—the similarity in need is clear. These are all relatively simple data collection problems that require strong security, a relatively simple user interface, and a back end that allows for robust data analysis. Although they look quite different to the end user, under the hood and on the back end the technical solutions to these problems are basically the same.

In fact, a secure mobile app for data collection is merely the beginning. It’s the back end and shared tools that can that truly deliver the benefits of collecting data at scale. Whether it is gathering targets for rapid response, understanding progress against key indicators, looking for patterns in the data that illuminate major challenges, or putting important data on a map to more easily visualize the scope of a social problem, it’s clear that shared tools will lower the barrier to understanding data in the social sector and thus to maximizing social impact.

Although we’re talking about data, what truly is at stake is giving individuals a voice. Traditional aid and charity tend to be unidirectional: the voice of the beneficiary is rarely heard from. The essence of the social entrepreneurial approach is the partnership between the social entrepreneur and the community she or he serves. Technology lowers the cost of and barriers to listening to the voice of individuals in disadvantaged communities, responding to their needs, and aggregating large amounts of data to measure overall effectiveness and shape policy interventions. We think this is about shifting power towards these individuals and communities in positive, effective ways. We can do this while respecting the privacy and personal rights of the people and communities we serve.

I left the Skoll World Forum with a bigger than usual smile: there’s an opportunity here for technology to make a lasting contribution to society. I invite you to join us as we continue to explore the next steps towards realizing this exciting software-for-good solution!