Donate Data

Data is an asset, increasingly bought and sold like other commodities. So why not also donate it to a good cause?

This is more of a prediction than a trend. Whilst we illustrate our other trends with cases showing that how it is manifesting in practice, there are as yet almost no concrete examples for Donate Data. Nonetheless, we believe that in future, people will donate not just money, time and things, but also data. In part this is because there is so much data, and the volume will continue to increase. For the one party – the donor – it’s essentially a by-product, whereas for the other party – the recipient – the data can yield valuable insights.

Knowledge is power – it’s a cliché, but no less true or important for that. Knowledge is obtained by interpreting information. Information is obtained by collecting data. Nowadays, this data is produced above all as a by-product of digital communication: when you enter a search into Google, or buy something online, or track the route and time of your morning jog using your phone. And as computers become embedded into more and more areas of our everyday lives, data is generated when you drive your car, open the fridge or flick the light-switch. Hence anyone who can extract information from this mass of data, and transform this into knowledge, has power. This includes the power to do a lot of good.

If data is, as European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding put it, the “blood of the internet”, then why is there no donation register? Like becoming a blood donor, it could be a way to genuinely help other people. It could be individuals donating directly, or it could be companies who store data on vast numbers of people (like Google or Facebook) donating it wholesale for a good cause. Up until now, social engagement has translated as giving money, things or time (by volunteering). In the future, data donation will also grow to be an important pillar in the way we approach donation.

The time has come to use data for the common good

Whilst data is a highly valued commodity in the commercial sector and has become the basis for better and more objective decisions – since the 2012 World Economic Forum data is regarded as a new asset class – in the social sector there is in most cases a fundamental lack of data. NGOs, foundations and donors work hard to do good. But many of them are so lacking in transparency that they can’t learn from one another. Governmental institutions do a little better: some states already operate data portals, such as, or And on the data portal MetroBoston DataCommon data is is processed and visualised for the general public to examine, so as to make living conditions across the region transparent and comprehensible. This means town planners, journalists or simply citizens can make decisions grounded in fact. So data is increasingly being published by states (see trend Open Data). It’s time it was used for the common good.

One of the most eloquent advocates of a data-driven social sector is American philanthropy-consultant Lucy Bernholz. She presents a vision of foundations, NGOs and international organisations publishing not only their finances but their entire accumulated knowledge about social advancement in a transparent information landscape. Because the more data NGOs and social enterprises have, the more effective they can be.

So much data, so few people who understand it

Patrick Meier from the globally successful open source mapping service Ushahidi is also calling for “Big Data philanthropy”. During disaster relief operations, for example (and Ushahidi was widely used following the Haiti earthquake in 2010) big data is generated and shared through social networking platforms like Twitter. Many competent people then voluntarily analyse this data. At the same time there’s lots of service providers specialising in social media analysis (companies such as Crimson Hexagon, Geofeedia, Netbase or Social Flow). These could join forces to create a kind of CSR (corporate social responsibility) group for humanitarian emergencies.

The challenge will be making sense of the data. In the USA alone, there’s a shortfall of 1.5 million managers with the ability to make decisions by interpreting data, according to estimates by McKinsey. Because there’s a lack of data competence, more and more hackathons are being organised, where the owners of data come together with data analysts. The NGO DataKind organises meetings between town officials and programmers, so that they can discuss what kind of digital tools could help the public sector in dealing with urban challenges.

There could be a public data-pool for social and community issues

In order to get individuals or companies to donate data, new institutions, laws, and processes need to be created, which above all ensure that donors can trust the people they’re handing over data to. People are understandably wary about giving away data because in the process they are also giving away a little piece of their private spheres. And because digital data, unlike, say, an old cassette recording, can’t be destroyed with any real certainty, the data donor must have confidence that he or she can remain anonymous. As with a lawyer, personal accountant or doctor, a data analyst can make sure that data on individuals can only be passed on through, or will approval from, those individuals. There can be certifications to ensure that analysts don’t play fast and loose with individuals’ data – a sort of independent institute for responsible data usage. Even once secure and trustworthy processes are in place, the donor still needs to be convinced as to why her data is so important to the common good. There could be a public data pool for social issues, which activists, politicians and donors could use to make better decisions. (The project Open Data Commons is a first step in this direction, which aims to create similar structures to Creative Commons for free data.) Opinions and speculations will thus be replaced by a new standard of data objectivity. In the doctor’s surgery there’s a sign up saying: “Donate your diagnosis data for better therapy for you and others”. What exactly that means is variable, because different kinds of knowledge can be inferred from a given set of data. That could be for the benefit of the cancer register, set up in Germany in 2013, or perhaps of liver specialists – the nature of the information contained in data is often unclear to begin with and perhaps only becomes apparent later with the advent of new methods of analysis.

With every data donation, the donor can decide: should the data only go to charitable organisations, or also to companies who might even sell it on? And are charitable organisations allowed to use my data in profitable ventures so as to help refinance themselves? The individual will also have opportunities to donate data in their daily lives, to particular causes or directly to NGOs. On the donation platform, for instance, as well as money and time people will also be able to donate their data. Anyone will be able to make data available on where they’ve been, or on the movement of their computer cursor. Certain digitally-minded NGOs are already actively appealing for data donors. “We’ll approach several data providers and ask whether they’ll donate their data to us,” says Christoph Bünte, programmer at Wheelmap. The online map shows, based on data from OpenStreetMap, which areas pose problems for wheelchair users. “If somebody has lots of information about step-free areas, a donation could help by processing and aggregating that data using our site.”

Twitter donates its entire tweet-archive to the Library of Congress.

Data donation will also become a part of companies’ CSR activities. Photos of oversize cheques being presented might still work for an insurance company in Hemel Hempstead. But more important is the long-term story which arises through community engagement. And that can be told using data: if a supermarket offered up data on shopping habits, hackers could use it in combination with other data in the public domain to, say, uncover new correlations about childhood obesity. In 2010 Twitter donated its complete archive of tweets to the Library of Congress. The billions of short messages are a unique trove of data. James Billington, The Library of Congress’s librarian, describes its “extraordinary potential for researching our daily lives”. The great challenge is now to infer conclusions which go beyond 140 characters. (It needs to be noted with regard to this kind of data from social networks that it reflects above all public perceptions, and not necessarily objective reality. But perceptions contribute to shaping reality, which makes them relevant.) Citizens all over the world are demanding more data protection from their governments. Big companies are coming under pressure to give the individual control over his or her data, and are running into legal problems when they don’t.

Ben Scott, former Innovation Adviser to Hilary Clinton things that we’ll end up with a system where we get to choose: users of Google, Amazon, Facebook and similar will be asked when they log on whether they are prepared to hand over their data to the company and in exchange get the use of the services (e.g. Google Earth) for free, or whether the data doesn’t get passed on and instead the user pays for the service. A third option is conceivable: a button which says “donate your data to this organisation, and help to combat the problem of illiteracy”. So the company and the individual would be working together towards the common good. Hence data will be donated on two levels. The state will legislate to require companies to publish data sets, using the common good as an argument in favour. A few CSR departments would come forward and donate less commercially sensitive data to a common data pool. Data will be gathered, sorted and prepared for further use in Data-Hubs (run by large cloud service providers like Cisco or IBM). On an individual level, data donation will contribute to the disappearance of the "uncanny feeling" people have towards the issue. Many people are made uncomfortable by the idea of Nike saving their jogging data or even that Apple knows the precise movement patterns of their mobile phone over the past three months. A trustworthy data-attorney, perhaps in the form of an app, that the masses of data about a person remain comprehensible – a kind of personal data collection point, which shows the user at all times, which data she has donated to whom and for what purpose. That's the way to build trust. What has been achieved with that data could then be listed on a kind of timeline:

Thanks to your data donation at the doctor's surgery, the cancer register is now a more powerful resource for research.

Thanks to your data donation at the supermarket checkout, the epidemiology of diet can be better understood.

Thanks to your website-use data we can improve online learning programmes.

Thanks to the data from your fridge, we're able to design more efficient appliances.

Technical developments, legal procedures and knowledge management processes are still overwhelmed by today's mass of data. But the more firmly data establishes itself as an economic asset, the more realistic becomes the prospect of data philanthropy, which extracts from this flood of data real social good.