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August 2013 (5 posts)

Beyond Alphabet Soup: 5 Guidelines For Data Sharing
August 29, 2013

(Andy Isaacson is Forward Deployed Engineer at Palantir Technologies. This blog is re-posted from the Markets for Good blog. Please see the accompanying reference document: Open Data Done Right: Five Guidelines – available for download and for you to add your own thoughts and comments.)

The BaIsaacson-100tcomputer was ingenious. In the 1960s Batman television series, the machine took any input, digested it instantly, and automagically spat out a profound insight or prescient answer – always in the nick of time (watch what happens when Batman feeds it alphabet soup). Sadly, of course, it was fictional. So why do we still cling to the notion that we can feed in just any kind of data and expect revelatory output? As the saying goes, garbage in yields garbage out; so, if we want quality results, we need to begin with high quality input. Open Data initiatives promise just such a rich foundation.

High quality, freely available data means hackers everywhere, from Haiti to Hurricane Sandy, are now building the kinds of analytical tools we need to solve the world’s hardest problems.

Presented with a thorny problem, any single data source is a great start – it gives you one facet of the challenge ahead. However, to paint a rich analytical picture with data, to solve a truly testing problem, you need as many other facets as you can muster. You can often get these by taking openly available data sets and integrating them with your original source. This is why the Open Data movement is so exciting. It fills in the blanks that lead us to critical insights: informing disaster relief efforts with up-to-the-minute weather data, augmenting agricultural surveys with soil sample data, or predicting the best locations for Internally Displaced Persons camps using rainfall data.

High quality, freely available data means hackers everywhere, from Haiti to Hurricane Sandy, are now building the kinds of analytical tools we need to solve the world’s hardest problems. But great tools and widely-released data isn’t the end of the story.

At Palantir, we believe that with great data comes great responsibility, both to make the information usable, and also to protect the privacy and civil liberties of the people involved. Too often, we are confronted with data that’s been released in a haphazard way, making it nearly impossible to work with. Thankfully, I’ve got one of the best engineering teams in the world backing me up – there’s almost nothing we can’t handle. But Palantir engineers are data integration and analysis pros – and Open Data isn’t about catering to us.

It is, or should be, about the democratization of data, allowing anybody on the web to extract, synthesize, and build from raw materials – and effect change. In a recent talk to a G-8 Summit on Open Data for Agriculture, I outlined the ways we can help make this happen:

#1 – Release structured raw data others can use

#2 – Make your data machine-readable

#3 – Make your data human-readable

#4 – Use an open-data format

#5 – Release responsibly and plan ahead

Abbreviated explanations below. Download the full version here: Open Data, Done Right: Five Guidelines.

#1 – Release structured raw data others can use

One of the most productive side effects of data collection is being able to re-purpose a set collected for one goal and use it towards a new end. This solution-focused effort is at the heart of Open Data. One person solves one problem; someone else takes the exact same dataset and re-aggregates, re-correlates, and remixes it into novel and more powerful work. When data is captured thoroughly and published well, it can be used and re-used in the future too; it will have staying power.

Release data in a raw, structured way – think a table of individual values rather than words – to enable its best use, and re-use.

#2 – Make your data machine-readable.

Once structured, raw data points are integrated into an analysis tool (like one of the Palantir platforms), a machine needs to know how to pick apart the individual pieces.

Even if the data is structured and machine readable, building tools to extract the relevant bits takes time, so another aspect of this rule is that a dataset’s structure should be consistent from one release to the next. Unless there’s a really good reason to change it, next month’s data should be in the exact same format as this month’s, so that the same extraction tools can be used again and again.

Use machine-readable, structured formats like CSV, XML, or JSON to allow the computer to easily parse the structure of data, now and in future.

#3 – Make your data human-readable.

Now that the data can be fed into an analysis tool, it is vital for humans, as well as machines, to understand what it actually means. This is where PDFs come in handy. They are an awful format for a data release as they can be baffling for automatic extraction programs. But, as documentation, they can explain the data clearly to those who are using it.

Assume nothing – document and explain your data as if the reader has no context.

#4 – Use an open-data format.

Proprietary data formats are fine for internal use, but don’t force them on the world. Prefer CSV files to Excel, KMLs to SHPs, and XML or JSON to database dumps. It might sound overly simplistic, but you never know what programming ecosystem your data consumers will favor, so plainness and openness is key.

Choose to make data as simple and available as possible: When releasing it to the world, use an open data format.

#5 – Release responsibly and plan ahead

Now that the data is structured, documented, and open, it needs to be released to the world. Simply posting files on a website is a good start, but we can do better, like using a REST API.

Measures that protect privacy and civil liberties are hugely important in any release of data. Beyond simply keeping things up-to-date, programmatic API access to your data allows you to go to the next level of data responsibility. By knowing who is requesting the data, you can implement audit logging and access controls, understanding what was accessed when and by whom, and limiting exposure of any possibly sensitive information to just the select few that need to see it.

Allow API access to data, to responsibly provide consumers the latest information – perpetually.

...

These guidelines seem simple, almost too simple. You might wonder why in this high tech world we need to keep things so basic when we have an abundance of technological solutions to overcome data complexity.

Sure, it’s all theoretically possible. However, in practice, anybody working with these technologies knows that they can be brittle, inaccurate, and labor intensive. Batman’s engineers can pull off extracting data from pasta, but for the rest of us, relying on heroic efforts means a massive, unnecessary time commitment – time taken away from achieving the fundamental goal: rapid, actionable insight to solve the problem.

There’s no magic wand here, but there are some simple steps to make sure we can share data easily, safely and effectively. As a community of data consumers and providers, together we can make the decisions that will make Open Data work.

-- Andy Isaacson

How the Reporting Commitment Leverages Philanthropy's Efforts to Solve Pressing Social Problems
August 26, 2013

(Leila Walsh is director of communications for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a private foundation with investments in criminal justice, education, public accountability, and research integrity.)

Walsh-200When the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) evaluates its grants, we measure our success against a variety of metrics designed to answer one fundamental question: Are we actually making a difference? When the answer is "yes," we are eager to do more of what's working and share our successes. If the answer is "no," we must learn from the experience and tell others about the results so they can learn from our failures. The Reporting Commitment is an important part of that process. It provides a forum to share grant information openly, transparently, and in real time. Along with the 16 other participating foundations, we will report our grants on a regular basis. You will see the groups that we are supporting as well as the amount, duration, and purpose of the grants.

We joined the effort because we believe the Reporting Commitment is helping to accelerate and better leverage philanthropy's efforts to address some of society's most persistent problems. It makes it easier to track overlapping interests and allows us to find ways to collaborate as part of a thorough and systemic effort.

We joined the effort because we believe the Reporting Commitment is helping to accelerate and better leverage philanthropy's efforts to address some of society's most persistent problems. It makes it easier to track overlapping interests and allows us to find ways to collaborate as part of a thorough and systemic effort. The Reporting Commitment also provides an opportunity to identify funding gaps, which is also critical because it gives us a better understanding of what hasn't been tried. When we discover ideas that are untested, we examine them through a rigorous evaluation process and then scale them if they prove to be effective. By examining all angles of a problem and all possible solutions, we are able to maximize opportunities for impact.

The Wall Street Journal recently called LJAF's entrepreneurial, data-driven approach to philanthropy "The New Science of Giving." We harness data and promote open access to information through each of our initiative areas. Here are a few examples of such projects:

  • LJAF's Criminal Justice team has developed and is piloting a risk assessment tool that uses data and analytics to help predict whether an individual will come back to court, whether he or she will commit a new crime, and whether he or she will commit a new crime of violence.
  • LJAF's Public Accountability team is supporting low-cost, randomized controlled trial evaluations of social programs that help government better compare and contrast among competing policy options and concentrate resources on what works.
  • LJAF's Research Integrity initiative is improving the reliability and validity of scientific evidence by investing in organizations that are committed to improving openness, transparency, and quality of research.

Because we recognize the power of data and measurable outcomes, we support the Reporting Commitment and encourage other foundations to join it. By collectively being transparent about our work and impact, we have a greater chance of producing innovative, effective solutions that will indeed make a difference and improve the lives of individuals and society as a whole.

--Leila Walsh

Explore grants by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation
and the 16 other participating foundations»

Glasspockets Find: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Shares its Strategy and Lessons Learned for Vulnerable Populations Program
August 13, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

To foundations it may seem that, however much information they share, it is never enough. Online annual reports, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds—where will it end? While nonprofits may have the sense that foundations are never sharing the information that they really need to make informed decisions. At Glasspockets, we are interested in learning what kind of information-sharing is beneficial to fostering good relationships between funders and grantees. In May, The Center for Effective Philanthropy released a fascinating report that gets to the heart of this delicate matter: Foundation Transparency: What Nonprofits Want. It reminds me of a more practically-minded version of relationship counseling books. (Foundations are from Mars and Nonprofits are from Venus?)

The CEP’s report is based on a survey of 138 nonprofit leaders, representing organizations with budgets ranging from $100,000 to $60 million. Among the findings, the ones that came to mind recently in relation to one foundation’s experimentation with new media are:

  • 88% of nonprofits surveyed are looking for foundations to share more lessons learned; and
  • 80% want more clarity about how foundations select their grantees.

I was reminded of this report’s call for greater transparency around these kinds of data elements as I viewed the new videos that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) just released on its site. The videos illustrate how new media might serve to provide this kind of window on foundation work. As an example of foundation transparency in their selection and decision-making process, RWJF also has shared its strategy for generating large-scale social change through its Vulnerable Populations programs, to help create understanding around how a national foundation selects a regional model to replicate across the country. RWJF created videos about its work with grantees Playworks and The Green House Project to explain the foundation’s long-term goals and five-stage strategy of investing in innovative models that can be tested, refined, and applied on a wide scale.

Watch the video»

The RWJF web site also features related articles, “Scaling Visionary Solutions to Improve the Health of Vulnerable Populations: The Case of the Green House Project” and “Playworks: Scaling a Great Idea,” which include lessons learned from working with each of these grantees. My favorite takeaway is from Playworks CEO and Founder Jill Vialet, who shares this lesson from scaling the program nationally: “Communications is part of every solution.”

Watch the video»

The sentiment also applies to our question of building good relationships between foundations and nonprofits. Now that we know “What Nonprofits What” in terms of foundation transparency, communications can be part of the solution, rather than a point of frustration.

--Rebecca Herman

Eye On: John Caudwell
August 8, 2013

(Caroline Broadhurst is director of Community Care Projects at the Rank Foundation and, through the Clore Social Leadership Programme, a visiting fellow at the Foundation Center. This is the first of a series of post she will be writing about the motivations of UK donors who have signed the Giving Pledge. For more about John Caudwell and the other Giving Pledgers, visit the Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge.)

John Caudwell

"Philanthropy gives me far more pleasure and satisfaction than making money."

— John Caudwell

From modest beginnings, 60-year-old John David Caudwell has established himself as one of the most successful English businessmen in modern times. After leaving school before earning what in the U.S. would have been his high-school diploma, Caudwell went to work for Michelin, the French tire manufacturer at the company's factory in the West Midlands. Not content to remain an engineering foreman, however, he nurtured his entrepreneurial instincts and soon began to create money-making ventures, including a corner shop and mail-order motorcycle clothing business.

Combining his mechanical knowledge — he earned an HNC in mechanical engineering while working at Michelin — and his growing business experience, Caudwell eventually set up a car dealership, with many of his former Michelin factory friends among his loyal customers. Displaying the entrepreneurial sensibility that would become his trademark, in 1987 he took a chance on the nascent mobile phone industry, starting Midland Mobile Phones with his brother, Brian. Despite running at a loss in its first few years, the business turned into a huge success, and by the 2000s the company, by then called Phones4U, was the largest independent distributor of cellular phones in the UK, selling an average of 26 phones every minute and earning more than $1.5 billion annually.

  • Entrepreneur
  • Philanthropist
  • British born UK resident
  • Father of five
  • Avid cyclist
  • Net worth $2.6 billion

Ever the shrewd businessman, Caudwell anticipated the end of the company's rapid-growth phase and sold a majority stake in it for $2.8 billion in 2006, followed by the remaining 25 percent for $72 million in 2011. He then created new business opportunities in the areas of health, real estate and the environment and became a vocal and passionate advocate for the role of British businesses in the larger European context. (He is also reported to be Britain's biggest taxpayer, having contributed almost $400 million to the Exchequer since 2008.)

Long before then, Caudwell's interest had expanded to philanthropy, including support for UK-based charities such as the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), and the Princes Trust, as well as Caudwell Children, a charitable organization he founded in 2000.

Since its inception, Caudwell has raised $40 million for the organization, which annually provides some three thousand children with disabilities and their families with much needed equipment and respite support. Like many of his contemporaries, Caudwell takes a venture approach to philanthropy, contributing time, extensive social networks, and deep business expertise, as well as financial support, to the organizations and causes he is passionate about. An avid cyclist, Caudwell also raises funds for the organization by participating in charity bike rides all over Britain and beyond.

In early 2013, Caudwell encouraged Bill Gates to promote the Giving Pledge to wealthy donors outside the United States. As he explains in his Giving Pledge letter his motivation in joining other Pledgers is grounded in his belief in helping others: "Everything I do now has some degree of feel-good factor." At the same time, his growing interest in philanthropy has hardly lessened his desire to create more wealth. "Making money," he writes in the letter, "is now largely driven by the knowledge that I will be able to leave even more wealth when I go."

-- Caroline Broadhurst

View John Caudwell's Eye on the Giving Pledge Profile»

Glasspockets Find: The James Irvine Foundation's 2012 Annual Report Highlights Engagement
August 1, 2013

Irvine-logoThe James Irvine Foundation just released its 2012 Annual Report. The report continues the tradition it began with its previous reports by also serving as a performance assessment for the overall work of the foundation.   

James E. Canales highlights engagement as central to this year’s report and a driver for their grantmaking in 2012. “When people engage in their communities, in their work, in their state, good things can happen. At The James Irvine Foundation, where our mission is to expand opportunity for the people of California, this idea of engagement – and working to improve Californians’ prospects to engage – has often been core to our work, no matter the program area. This seemed more so than ever in 2012, during our 75th anniversary as a foundation.”

As in prior years, this year’s report is entirely online allowing readers to “engage” actively with the content. The report features an Introduction as well as four distinct areas: Program Impact, Leadership, Finance and Organization, and 2012 Grantmaking. The report makes great use of infographic and data visualization displays by organizing information into easily digested graphics throughout all of the areas and can serve as a helpful example of how to present investment returns, staff and board demographics, program impact data, anniversary content, and social network statistics. Engage with the Irvine Foundation's 2012 Annual Report online.

The James Irvine Foundation just released its 2012 Annual Report. The report continues the tradition it began with its previous reports by also serving as a performance assessment for the overall work of the foundation.   

James E. Canales highlights engagement as central to this year’s report and a driver for their grantmaking in 2012. “When people engage in their communities, in their work, in their state, good things can happen. At The James Irvine Foundation, where our mission is to expand opportunity for the people of California, this idea of engagement – and working to improve Californians’ prospects to engage – has often been core to our work, no matter the program area. This seemed more so than ever in 2012, during our 75th anniversary as a foundation.”

As in prior years, this year’s report is entirely online allowing readers to “engage” actively with the content. The report features an Introduction as well as four distinct areas: Program Impact, Leadership, Finance and Organization, and 2012 Grantmaking. The report makes great use of infographic and data visualization displays by organizing information into easily digested graphics throughout all of the areas and can serve as a helpful example of how to present investment returns, staff and board demographics, program impact data[JC1] , anniversary content, and social network statistics.  Engage with the Irvine Foundation's 2012 Annual Report online.


 [JC1]Natasha, can you please hyperlink each of these things I’m mentioning so it jumps to the right part of the annual report for each of these.  Let me know if you have trouble finding any of them.

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