Stop Funding Data for Superman Systems! Improve Local Awareness Instead

Data for Superman, Sarah Kahlan Dickover, January 2017

The data revolution is well upon us, with the total data produced doubling every two years. Organizations are processing of an over-abundance of data using a variety of collection and statistical interpretation approaches and machine learning algorithms to bring transformative insights to a range of industries. From self-driving cars, precision agriculture, and personalized marketing to proving early warning signals for global conflict, new innovations dependent on data have the power to fundamentally reshape society. This has led to a gold rush in companies finding ways to monetize the opportunity.

In line with this, a wave of innovation in applying methods for local data collection in emerging and frontier markets is unfolding daily. New data collection tools using mobile phones, Interactive Voice Response (IVR), SMS, and tablet assisted enumerators are emerging daily. Remote data collection companies like Premise and Findyr are pioneering methods to “crowdseed” local data collection from regular people with cell phones for a range of commercial and international interests.

The world of sustainable development has recognized the potential and has begun investigating how to harness data to measure and create impact. Discussions are underway in organizations across the sustainable development landscape to find ways to capitalize on data in a way that doesn’t just produce flashy dashboards, but actually makes progress against intractable problems in difficult environments.

Give Superman the data he needs, when he needs it, and then what exactly?

Investing in Data for Superman

There is a coming deluge of data systems to support real-time awareness and decision-making in the sustainable development space, but the majority are what I affectionately refer to as Data for Superman systems (phrase originated by Fred Tipson). Usually behind a firewall, expensive data systems are being crafted to support the decision making of really important people— the President of the UN or US, Foreign Secretary of a country, the head of a large health or relief organization — the list is growing daily.

What if the way you see northern Nigeria changing is when local advocates for peace, in whatever form they exist, are able to convince the local population to consider and eventually adopt more nonviolent means of resolving their differences?

The belief behind these investments is if we can provide our Superman everything he needs (it usually is a he), when he needs it, and in the way he needs it, he will have access to near magical levers that, if properly configured, can be used to make the problems of, say, Northern Nigeria (where Boko Haram operates) disappear.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/iita-media-library/12771021293

What if you don’t believe the actual levers of power your Superman has access to are all that magical? Instead, what if the way you see northern Nigeria change is when local advocates for peace in whatever form they exist, are able to convince the local population to consider and eventually adopt more nonviolent means of resolving their differences?

If that’s how you think change is more likely to occur, it's really those local advocates, activists, journalists, youth groups, religious leaders and forward thinking government actors who need a decision support environment that helps them understand the world around them in way that impacts their planning and tactics. A decision support environment that better connects them to knowledge and people relevant to their problem has the potential for significant improvements in long term impact.

Peace-Tech Exchange Myanmar, at Phandeeyar’s Innovation Hub in Yangon, Jan 2015

“Who is your Superman?”

The question we collectively should be asking with our energy and investment dollars is, “Who is the one that benefits from being the most informed?” Who is your superman? Who gets the most benefit from near real-time access to social media analytics, news analytics, geospatial insights, yearly and quarterly structured data about the world around them in usable, actionable form? Who most needs improved awareness connected to drive their actions?

Becoming Aware, Sarah Kahlan Dickover, March 2016

Improving Local Awareness

The sustainable development community regularly invests in programs and approaches in a region to improve a specific development goal or outcome, but these investments are often planned in isolation, disconnected from any larger strategy for regional improvement.

What if we could make investments that lead to improvements in local awareness? What if we could design experiments or projects with verifiable results that had the potential to improve the ability of local social good actors to identify new and emerging challenges quickly? What if we could make investments that improved the probability of finding people and resources to make progress against enduring problems?

The long term answer is not a new website or transformative app, but an improvement in the local information environment — one that allows for awareness of events and trends.

Resources often exist that could aid social good projects, but don’t often go forward due to the lack of collaborative infrastructure, personal connections, and the knowledge necessary to think through where the best investments could be made. Local actors are connected to a variety of ad hoc and formal support networks and resources, including the local technology, telecommunications, or entrepreneur scene. Unfortunately, important information is not evenly distributed.

Too often, participants across the development spectrum will mention they are either not connected with those who can assist, or are not aware of key information or data that could help guide their planning or operations. In taking a recent example, Larissa Fast and Adele Waugaman’s wonderfully detailed action report on the digital use of Ebola, Fighting Ebola with Information, they point to this issue directly:

Several interviewees referred to a “fog of information,” describing the lack of timely, accurate, and accessible data, which clouded situational awareness, impeded effective decision-making, and stymied the response.

Targeted investments that support improved information use across the social good community in a region would raise the capability of what’s possible, and improve resiliency of a region to respond to challenges and crisis situations. If successfully implemented, regional level investments to improve the social good environment could raise the potential to impact all future investments.

This pattern of technology adoption seems to repeat itself with every shiny new object technology brings — most recently, innovations in data.

Lessons from Early Warning Systems

Unfortunately, the Data for Superman dynamic is not a new one. This pattern of technology adoption seems to repeat itself with every shiny new object technology brings — most recently, innovations in data.

This same issue — informing international actors far away from the action over improving local awareness — was discussed ad nauseum with first and second generation early warning systems. As early as 1988, Rupesinghe forcefully addressed the importance of local NGOs — how an improvement in their awareness would lead to improved preparedness and early response. Apparently, our collective approach for technology adoption in sustainable development hasn’t changed much in almost 30 years. Rupesinghe (1988) cautions:

Generally, discussions relating to early warning systems emanate from the North, and particularly environments which can handle large amounts of information. Little attention is paid, however, to the victims of disasters, or to the competence of local NGOs to strengthen their own capacity to handle information, to evaluate and control their own environment.

Early warning without the ability for (ideally a prepared) early response is near useless. Patrick Meier, reflecting on early warning implementations to date in 2006 makes virtually the very same point:

This begs the questions posed in the introduction: early warning for whom and by whom? Are we just warning ourselves? Or are we warning those at risk? If the former, then both the disaster and conflict early warning fields are doing very well. If the latter, then we have to ask ourselves whether the Emperor is indeed wearing any clothes.
Collective Action, Sarah Kahlan Dickover, March 2016

Call to Action: Investment in Local Awareness

In planning their appropriate portfolio investment mix, stakeholders and donors interested in improving sustainable development should be investing in experiments to improve local awareness — to improve the ability of those working sustainable development issues to become better connected to the knowledge, people and resources that can assist them. Region level improvements point to collective, shared investments — ones that improve the ability of the social good environment itself in a region or country.

How can a social good organization with limited project funds conduct their project in a way that enhances the local sharing environment for future efforts?

The long term answer is not a new website or transformative app, but an improvement in the local information environment — one that allows for awareness of events and trends. One where knowledge about people, skills and potential resources matching is easily disseminated. An improvement in the ability of the local environment to cultivate and sustain formal and informal information sharing relationships and adapt to changing circumstances would improve the potential impact of the collective efforts.

In each context, the answer will be different, but there are probably obvious starting points in many cases. The possibilities are endless, and could be started at any budget level. Infrastructure improvements could be virtual in nature. Shared resources might include freely available local data science talent to assist social good actors in thinking about their information needs.

If you are in a position to advocate for, or can influence funding and investment decisions, please consider advocating for investments in local awareness.

As you begin to research this as an idea, I think you’ll find shared investments for local awareness have a far greater potential for impact in the long term than most individual projects.


Potential Approaches to Improve Local Awareness

The rest of this article provides approaches and ideas in improving local awareness that can be initiated immediately. These include:

  • Strategies for improving data relevancy
  • Local data commons as a Civic Trust
  • Improving local innovation with the tech for social good community
  • Ideas for assessing a region’s social good environment
  • A systems ecology approach for cultivating social good ecosystems

I detail these thoughts below but I would love to hear what you are doing! If there are approaches you’ve undertaken or are thinking about, please share them in the comments section below.


Data scientist: “What data do you need to make a decision?”
Activist: “How the fuck would I know that?”

Data Relevancy

The clear and present data challenge facing the sustainable development field concerns relevancy. While data is plentiful, approaches that make data more accessible and relevant for anyone, let alone local actors striving to enact social good efforts, is especially challenging. The lack of data literacy across the sustainable development field is magnified in developing contexts. Power, connectivity, fragile governance and curtailing of freedoms all impact the ability to apply data for planning and decision making. Data isn’t going to be viewed as a 3D visualizations on overly large monitor, it will be seen on smartphones or SMS alerts.

Even more basic, incorporating a new category of input into regular, ongoing tactical actions and decision processes is uniquely difficult for both people and organizations. This incorporation doesn’t happen in a workshop — it's a long term gradual process that involves learning, reflection, investigation and practical experimentation.

Even given these immense difficulties, the composition of which are unique in each environment, if social good actors had an improved ability to understand and investigate changes and trends relevant to their work, impacts could be seen in:

  • Short term crisis planning, which is at a premium in humanitarian and conflict situations,
  • Longer term programmatic planning, which is necessary for all new interventions, and assisting in
  • Near real-time assessment of current tactics in reaching an outcome or goal.

These actions are critical across the development landscape — from nonviolent civil rights movements tracking the impact of defections from the opposition; gender practitioners attempting to understand whether they’ve changed perceptions of masculinity in their community; health workers tracking potential disease outbreaks; to justice and security reform workers attempting to strengthen the justice sector to deal with impunity.

If improvements in local awareness can improve the decision making capabilities for those most connected to and affected by the problems we think critical, shouldn’t we find ways invest in these regions at close to the same levels or even higher than we do for data for Superman systems? Improving data relevancy for local actors is one way to start.

Relevancy, Sarah Kahlan Dickover, March 2016

Strategies for Data Relevancy

Data relevancy is not a dashboard. Everyone is always asking for data dashboards, but once delivered, nobody is interested in accessing them. Ultimately they fail to connect — fail to help in a tangible way that would prompt the user return regularly. Relevancy does not happen on a dashboard or mobile screen, it occurs in the activist’s head.

If the data community is interested impacting social good efforts, identifying and testing ways to make this data “connect” is the critical hard work left undone. The technology problems are relatively easy by comparison.

There are a number of approaches you can experiment to improve data relevancy. Most good approaches start with the actual user involved in the process. When you don’t, add more time for rework. Here are a few ideas I have been spent some time working on, but again, I would love to hear your ideas in the comments for making data relevant as well:

  • Connect “live data” to commonly known narratives: The sustainable development community operates on “thick description” narratives as the primary way to describe complex situations. Use this to your advantage. If your primary users care about a culture of corruption, embed the live data within a narrative describes the pervasive spread of corruption — the live data enticingly placed with this text is now a doorway to new information your users will care about — they may even return to see changes. To start, identify the primary narratives used, and weave live datasets and easy to read maps into a well written, regularly updated (on a schedule if possible) narrative.
  • Simplicity over completeness: The tendency in building a data interface is to make everything available in case the nonspecific “someone” needs it. Instead, try tailoring a view for a discrete case or action. Focus on the need, even if it leads to more point solutions at the local level. Advanced interfaces for power users should be enacted separately.
  • User defined views: If possible, work with user groups to take the larger set of data and resources available to customize a subset for testing and improvement. The US Military faced a similar problem and used to focus on a building a “Common Operational Picture” (CoP) that contained everything of potential value for the battle space. The end result was predictably overwhelming for most. The solution was to move toward a User Defined Operational Picture (UDOP) approach.
  • Clustered data sets matching user profiles: One idea sparked from using RSS newsreaders involves finding ways to cluster datasets of interest to a particular profile of user. RSS readers might collect all sports, or even football RSS feeds together, for instance. In your case, you might marshall a variety of real-time and structured data sources to build a profile to support researchers and practitioners tracking ethnic tensions in the horn of Africa. Those addressing violent extremism recruitment in northern Tunisia would want a different view, for instance.
  • Baked-in interaction: The best way to determine whether the information you are putting in front of potential users is to get them to interact with it. If nobody is interacting, it might not be relevant. Once you start a community around the data, the needs and delivery mechanisms become clearer.
  • Live summary for policymakers and donors: There are a variety of ways to create automated, live summaries giving some level of project or event status. While having the downsides of any automated information source, this removes the hassle of a human providing basic updates, which if done poorly leads to a loss in trust.
  • Adherence to Principles of Digital Development: This is a shorthand for a number of practices you should be following. Engaging the intended user up-front in the design process is critical, as are the rest.

Local Data Commons as a Civic Trust

If there was trusted local organization with the ability to responsibly handle the data management activities — to collect, process, store and disseminate data — an organization that serves a local data commons if you will — that organization would be a powerful enabler for the social good environment.

In looking at legal models to support a local data commons, Sean McDonald and Keith Porcaro describe a civic trust — a trustee organization that, as a legal entity, seems to address a number of the concerns raised. McDonald and Porcaro describe a civic trust as being unique in that:

(1) their missions are to define and support the implementation of systems of public participation in decisions about user and contributor rights; (2) the trustee organization itself must develop public participation models for its core governance decisions; and (3) civic trusts can be designed to create reciprocal relationships between the public (the trust), technology companies (the licensee), and technology stakeholders (the users or investors or contributors or public).

In many instances, a local data commons as a civic trust would need a third party mentor or set of mentors on a range of data architecture, data management and data use questions. An organization with this as a mandate could really improve data use.

Clearly there are challenges with this. Working with data is difficult and expensive in the best of circumstances. Hard core technical issues are especially problematic in developing contexts, and exist alongside thorny ethics, privacy and public trust concerns.

Of particular note, social good organizations face a range of operational and security issues the greater the degree of authoritarian control over their society. Legal frameworks and rule of law may be at odds with safe and secure recommended data management practices in many countries. Lucy Bernholz describes the general problem facing nonprofits in potentially authoritarian contexts:

“ If you run a nonprofit, an advocacy group, or care about independent facts and analysis, you need a two-part digital independences plan, 
1) to defend the data you collect and 
2) to make sure that you have continued access to the public data that powers your work.”

The specifics of the local security environment restrict the what’s possible.

Even given important contextual concerns, it makes sense to strive for a locally owned and managed trusted entity that can find ways to take ownership and stewardship over local data needs (even if stored in the cloud). With a clear mandate to represent everyone’s interests, a data commons as civic trust could marshall people, resources and data for local social good purposes.

As a direct impact of this effort and investment, the potential for local actors to make the journey toward becoming data driven would become far more likely. Ideally, a local data commons would form recognized community coalitions with clear needs and approaches to collect and apply data as an enabler. A locally run data commons could prioritize value to local stakeholders who contribute to the data commons.

It would even be possible for the data commons to monetize their data investment to external actors. This in essence would be a reverse of the massive data extraction process under way now by the various players in the Big Data industry!

The local data commons could in essence become the higher quality, locally sourced “artisanal data brand.” Commercial interests might be willing to fund this due to the perceived increase in quality and integrity of the local data collected.


Events that overtly work to connect the tech scene in a positive way — meaning engagements that enable the local technologists as the stars, overtly include the youth talent necessary to sustain the scene, and offer the potential for resources and publicity — will improve the tech for social good scene for future efforts.

Improving Local Innovation: Tech for Social Good

Noel Dickover, FantasyPumpkins.com, 2012

I’ve had the unique opportunity to connect local tech and civil society communities in over 20 developing countries to address a variety of social problems. Consistently, the most impactful innovation I’ve found is with the local tech community. They understand the details of the internet and telecom environment, the collaboration approaches that work.

Local technologists can often come up with Macgyver-like low cost, sometimes even easy to to implement solutions that activists, social good and development professionals can and do apply. They can also make use of available open data resources to build better views of the problem a civil society activist is addressing. Engaging local technologists in sustainable development projects is cheaper than importing external technologists. More importantly for the purposes of this paper, including local technologists can lead to long term network effects.

Unfortunately, while tech for social good folk are happy applying their skills toward global health problems one day and education issues the next, rarely will the health professional reach out the education professional, unless they are at a shared event. Working within a region, it takes significant, shared and sustained effort to viably connect the key actors in the tech for social good scene to the relevant stakeholders in each of the development sectors that matter.

The problem is further complicated in that the tech for social good scene in a city or region is often separated into disconnected “pocket” networks. This is due to a variety of factors including distance, ethnic, religious or political concerns, tech industry sector, or may simply be due to the size of the environment, such as in megacities. It's often hard to tell whether there are amazing local talent literally just around the corner, but for whatever reason is just undiscoverable.

Doing tech for social good w/a connected community goes fast. (FantasyPumpkins, 2013)

For example, if I’m planning a social good event or project in Guatemala City, and I find a tech “connector” close to the center of the “tech for social good web,” I probably have potential access to everyone in the social good scene that matters. This is not the case if I’m working an event or project in Bangkok (nor is it the case, incidentally, adjacent to Guatemala in Honduras for contextual reasons).

There is real value in working with the tech “connectors” to more fully integrate the technology community internally. This will yield more benefits as each of the development sectors are connected, as more potential technologists with more diverse skills and interests will be available to assist. Events that overtly work to connect the tech scene in a positive way — meaning engagements that enable the local technologists as the stars, overtly include the youth talent necessary to sustain the scene, and offer the potential for resources and publicity — will improve the tech for social good scene for future efforts.


Global Goals for Sustainable Development

Assessing a Region’s Social Good Environment

We are continually evaluating the best way to spend scarce resources in making visible progress on the sustainable development goals. One way to improve collective decision making would be the ability to viably assess the current state of a country or region’s social good environment. If the international community had a method of assessing the state of a social good environment in a region or country in a publicly shareable way, this would allow donors new opportunities for ensuring their investments lead to maximal change potential.

The ability to assess a region’s social good environment would involve research to build a model of the drivers affecting the social good environment, that applied real-time data from social media and news, structured data and and local data collection. This would be a significant undertaking, but if it was possible to identify gaps or problems in the current social good environment, there would be the potential for targeted investments.

But investments such as these are unlikely to occur unless there is a higher degree of confidence in the outcome. Ideally, a body of knowledge should be developed around methods for assessing and improving a region’s social good environment.

If the international community had a method of assessing the state of a social good environment in a region or country in a publicly shareable way, this would allow donors new opportunities for ensuring their investments lead to maximal change potential.

Research on methods for assessing the health of a social good environment should touch on the following properties:

  • Degree of connectedness: To what degree are stakeholders within the development sectors connected with the knowledge, resources and people that can help them? How strong are the ties between the entrepreneurial and social impact investor elements with the development sectors?
  • Degree of innovation: How often do new ideas emerge, and how successfully are they marshalled toward implementation?
  • Degree of Trust: What is the level of trust among the participants? Are the relationships formed primarily transactional in nature or purposeful? Are purposeful networks forming and growing or are the stagnating?
  • Quality and scale of information sharing: How effective is information sharing? Do non-state actors or authoritarian regimes negatively impact the free flow of ideas? If so, what are the alternative means the social good actors are using?
  • Awareness: How aware are the stakeholders of the status of key challenges, and the happenings of the social good network engaged in solving those problems?
  • Visibility and status of social good clusters: Where is the energy and engagement taking place in the social good scene? The more this is publicly shared, the more likely additional social good actors can contribute.

Ecosystems as a heuristic for assessing a social good environment.

One approach for assessing a region’s social good environment is to view it as an ecology — an interconnected set of relations and interactions between stakeholders that produce the outcomes we hope are so impactful. The text below details a systems ecology view of ecosystems. Consider this as a heuristic for building a model for understanding and assessing a region’s social good environment.


A Systems Ecology Approach toward Ecosystems

https://www.emaze.com/@AZROTOLW/sosyal-sorumluluk

James Moore introduced the term “business ecosystem” in the 1990s to describe a connected environment of organizations and individuals coalescing around a specific function or business goal. While the term resonates in that it's clear “things are connected”, there is little heft in the concept to help with design requirements for cultivating and sustaining interaction, especially when the range of stakeholders exceeds a one-off business purpose. The use of the term “ecosystem” for business purposes has been growing exponentially, and now more resembles a buzzword, mostly devoid of meaning.

This lack of specificity hinders ecosystems as a concept overall, and certainly hinders the ability to use ecosystems concepts to assess the health of the network, or a region's social good environment.

By Thompsma — Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9406352

If we bypass the business definition of ecosystems, there is more fertile territory in visiting the world of ecologists. Drawing on ecosystems work from ecologists may provide clues to the key structures, processes and networks that are needed for impact on a region’s development priorities.

I come to ecology from a systems field lens, and followed the work of Howard Odum, a systems theorist and ecologist who conducted some of the original work on ecosystem ecology. Ecosystems in nature are characterized by a cornucopia of diversity, powered by energy transfers and interconnections between species, which, over time, tend toward increasing complexity.

Some properties that may be useful in understanding social good ecosystems include:

  • Organized around physical structures: Ecosystems in nature are organized around physical structures like trees or coral reefs. These structures are both a source of stored potential energy, they also become the foundation for the patterns of interaction that emerge.
  • Powered by energy: Ecosystems are powered by energy — solar, geothermal, wind and tidal. Ecologists are very interested in mapping the energy transfer between between the biosphere and the ecosystem, and in tracking energy transfer between species.
  • Nebulous boundaries: The physical boundaries of an ecosystem may ebb and flow over time. Ecosystems interact with neighboring ecosystems, and do not exist as discrete vessels.
  • Feedback Loops: Ecosystems have a series of interacting feedback loops that sustain its metabolic equilibrium. Negative feedback loops which negate change from steady state operations serve a regulatory function — examples are bacteria in a river that eat pollutants. Positive feedback loops increase change — a long time scale example is the the trend toward increasing diversity of organisms and complexity of interactions.
  • Increasingly complex value chains are formed: Energy is consumed in trophic networks producing higher order levels and processes that emerge. We normally refer to this as the natural food chain, which starts with single-celled organisms, going up through through the carnivores.
  • Mix of organic and nonorganic materials. The waste products of living organisms become energy for decomposers. Everything is used to maximize energy transfer.
  • Production and respiration states: Just like individual organisms, ecosystems have regulatory metabolisms with production states, where energy is created and stored, and respiration states where energy is released. This happens both daily, and seasonally with growth seasons and dry seasons.
  • Stored potential energy is periodically released: Stored potential energy in an ecosystem can be released in large bursts, as is the case in a forest fire. This allows for new niches and networked relationships between species to form.
  • Emergent properties: Higher order behaviors emerge from the product of the interaction of the ecosystem itself, including self-sustenance, awareness of threats, and defensive routines and overall resilience.
On Flickr from ccPixs.com — http://www.ccpixs.com/

A Systems Ecology View of Social Good Ecosystems

If stakeholders in the social good community wanted to improve their information environment so that relevant information was easier to find, a systems ecology view of ecosystems provides an approach to that can be researched and tested. In examining how these ecosystems concepts could he used as a heuristic for assessing and improving country or regional social good ecosystems, I will provide thoughts on each of the ecosystems concepts above. I recognize significant work is required to turn these ideas into an operational approach for assessment and prescription.

We can look at a region’s social good ecosystem as a living system. Living systems — be they individual cells, organs, organisms and organizations, or larger supra-structures such as communities or larger social good ecosystems — have a set of subsystems to process matter, energy and information, and create persistent patterns of interaction with regular roles that adapt and change over time.

If a region has a functioning social ecosystem, like say, in Mexico City, it will have gradually evolved over time in a way that has allowed new initiatives to organically grow. It will have also been influenced by larger social good trends like transparency and will have cultivated their own local responses and approaches to this.

Ecosystem Structures

Just as in natural ecosystems, physical structures in social good ecosystems are critical to cultivating growth and providing the conditions for purposeful networks to form and thrive. Physical structures become the anchors around which purposeful networks can grow and mature. Coworking spaces, makerspaces, tech spaces, and innovation hubs that bring diverse elements of the social good scene together are all potential anchor structures in a social good ecosystem.

Phandeeyar Innovation Hub, January 2015

An example is Phandeeyar’s co-working space and innovation hub in Yangon, Myanmar. Their events regularly connect the technology community with social good actors from gender, digital rights and journalism, entrepreneurs, government professionals, journalists and others. The space includes an accelerator, a makerspace, and a platform for open data.

From a social good ecosystems development standpoint, spaces like Phandeeyar’s should be seen as critical infrastructure. Functioning ecosystems need structures like this to provide the conditions for purposeful networks to form and grow.

Like real ecosystems, there is a need for diversity of structures in a social good ecosystem. Tech hubs, maker spaces, entrepreneurial accelerators, coworking spaces, cell phone shops, or a development sector specific structure like a cereal consortium in the agricultural space all are potential structures where new value chains for positively impacting society can be cultivated. Innovative government spaces work as well — trust is clearly an important element in introducing a new structure to an ecosystem.

Virtual structures for information exchange are now a key part of the information environment. Ad-hoc sharing environments like massive WhatsApp or Viber groups along with localized alternatives including community radio and SMS networks may be key elements of a region’s functioning information ecosystem.

Energy

Energy in traditional ecosystems translates to knowledge, resources and purpose in social good ecosystems. While ecosystems are built on structures, networks are based on shared purpose. A purposeful network such as a sexual violence survivors network will function on top of a social good ecosystem in the sense that it will take advantage of shared resources the ecosystem offers. Viable flows of information and resources are necessary for purposeful networks to cultivate and grow. This allows for new members to enter the network and innovative ideas to flourish.

As an aside, a “funded network,” which may have an external organization’s name on it as the primary identifier, may or may not be purposeful.

Ecosystem Boundaries

Social good ecosystems by definition are nebulous. This is advantageous in that a viable social good ecosystem has the potential to expand and contract as conditions permit. In addition to diverse local resources and talent, there is immense potential in attracting outside actors, including diaspora and youth participation, business and commercial interests, along with various elements of the sustainable development community.

For an idea of the possibilities, the US State Department has a terrific intern program called the Virtual Student Foreign Service. College students from across the US can virtually intern with State Department offices around the world. Imagine if more funding went into ways to connect college students around the world to virtually intern with local civil society organizations in a microtasking capacity or longer term relationship? There are a number of experiments already under way in this space, but its still ripe for experimentation.

Feedback Loops

Well functioning negative feedback loops (negating change from an initial state) and positive feedback loops (increasing change from an initial state) are critical for proper regulation and organic growth in social good ecosystems. Regulatory mechanisms in this case may include social behaviors embedded in the ecosystem or a purposeful network, such as security procedures for communication to use in non-permissive information environments, or establishing a code of conduct for technology volunteers assisting in humanitarian crisis. Control functions for important regulatory loops may also emerge as social organizations created and codified to address a clear and present threat in the environment, such as a lack of support for transparency, or freedom of speech, for instance.

Perhaps the most important positive feedback loops in a social good ecosystem involve actions toward increased learning, increased connectivity of the participants, and expansion of the knowledge domains associated with the local ecosystem and purposeful networks. These too are often embedded in the ethos of the ecosystem itself, but can also be the result of a strategic expansion on the part of a network to add a new goal or capability.

The term “feedback” is usually used in relation to establishing effective communication channels within purposeful networks in social good ecosystems. This too is critical, especially for most of the international organizations working in these environments— but is different from what I’m referring to. There are many approaches assessing communication needs, but even years later with technology updates, to me Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model still provides the best template for diagnosing and prescribing communication issues.

Complex Value Chains

One concept Odum uses in understanding value chain creation is emergy (spelled with an “m”). Emergy is as the available energy of one kind which is used up directly and indirectly to generate a product or service. That new product or service often has the ability to create more interesting value chains. For example, if we customized a machine learning algorithm to identify ethnic or religious hate speech in a country which was then served up to organizations who addressed the hate speech in some way, a higher order process with improved awareness and tactical decision making would have emerged.

Within an ecosystem, connectors and information brokers have the ability to bring together practitioners addressing key problems with recognized experts in a variety of fields to create new products, services and capabilities. The products or services themselves then have the ability to be built upon, and allow new niches to emerge.

Mix of organic and nonorganic materials

Machine learning and big data techniques allow us to think about data reuse in ways that mimic waste re-use in ecosystems. Harvesting meaning from existing knowledge sources to extract new relevance opens up new opportunities. We can use trend analysis with this older data to improve our understanding of the most effective means for improving future decisions. Given that open source options exist, which reduces the cost for many of the leading edge technologies, opportunities for collective action in improving awareness through existing data is not cost-prohibitive.

Production and respiration states

Functioning social good ecosystems have regular rhythms, which the often drive the actions of associated networks. Ecosystems’ cycle of production and respiration include a set events and venues where organizations can release new products or approaches, regular donor cycles, publications and conferences, and location specific events.

A good example of this in the US context for the tech community would be South by Southwest (SWSX) and the Computer Electronics Show (CES). These are predictable, repeatable events which prompt companies to spend months or even years getting ready for — potential energy is created and then released at the show itself. Large events on the tech calendar are scheduled not unlike golf tournaments — the larger events command space on the schedule while the smaller ones eak out time slots on the margins. You simply don’t have the CES taking place at the same time as SXSW.

Emergent Properties

An emergent property is something that only exists in a collective system, but does not exist in the individual nodes. Like natural ecosystems, functioning social good ecosystems can develop emergent properties which are near impossible to design from spec. In thinking about emergence in social good ecosystems, “trust” is perhaps most easiest to understand. Others like resilience improve with better connectivity, knowledge and planning.

Clearly this section could be a paper unto itself. In detailing potential emergent properties, I’ll use a mix of examples basic systems principles to describe the dynamic. Apologies if the later it gets jargony.

Trust: Trust in many developing contexts is a hard commodity to develop and maintain. Building trusted ties between different provincial governments and the communities they govern, or between ethnic groups is certainly a key aspect of the peacebuilding field. A well functioning social good ecosystem would better strengthen and maintain trusted ties across a range of critical sectors. As Fast and Waugaman writes Fighting Ebola with Information, lack of trust can be deadly.

“Communities are not uncooperative because they are backward or uneducated. On the contrary, they harbor a distrust of Ebola response efforts that is completely rational, given their experience during recent decades of misrule and political tumult. … Such complex historical circumstances fuel distrust of formal power structures — and Ebola response efforts.

Awareness: I subscribe to the notion that if you are connected, the information you care about will find you. The more connected a functioning social good ecosystem becomes, the higher the confidence social good participants will have that they are “in the know” of what’s happening. This includes both the local happenings and the virtual connections that are often are influencing the social good scene through resources and capital. In short, the more aware an ecosystem is, the more likely it is to self-identify and publish its needs and those of its users, which makes outside investment easier.

Innovation: The more interconnected the networks, and the more diverse capabilities the networks are connected to, the more likely new ideas emerge, new niches discovered, and new value chains are initiated.

Reporter: Why did the Iraq War Occur?
Records Manager: It was due to a failure in records management! Saddam couldn’t prove he had disposed of his WMD because he had no records!

Shared Memory: Social good ecosystems develop a shared memory over time. This is stored in structures and in purposeful networks. Over time, the shared memory becomes the anchor for repeatable behaviors and responses. An important use of a social good ecosystem might be better retention of disaster risk reduction knowledge in a region with recurring natural disasters.

In regions with authoritarian strongmen or bad non-state actors, the approach taken for shared memory takes on real importance. Some knowledge is critical to share and maintain for a variety reasons like transitional justice concerns. But in certain circumstances, for personal safety reasons, something closer to Saddam’s “destroy the evidence” approach (at least encrypt it, please!) is the right course, and should be planned judiciously.

Resilience: Resilience in a social good ecosystem sense refers to the ability of networks and the social good ecosystem itself to recognize and respond to significant perturbations. Perturbations in this sense could touch on any of the sustainable development areas: Poverty, health crisis, conflict, etc. The use of data for resilience is very similar to its use for risk management purposes in that the more you have and for longer, the more useful the data becomes.

Resilience in social good ecosystems could by its own body of work. With this in mind, the following principles relate. The following applies to the ability of a system to respond and recover:

  • As more resources become available, the ability of a system to respond to a crisis increases
  • As the strength of the connections increase between the participants and purposeful networks, the ability of the system to respond increases
  • If the resources already share an ethos for action, established patterns of interaction and decision making, the ability a system to adapt increases
  • Over time, in a functioning ecosystem, higher order processes emerge for organically creating defensive routines

Please send me your ideas!

I’ve provided some ideas for approaches to improve local awareness, but I would love to hear from you! Please share your thoughts below on ideas you have, or perhaps have even implemented below.


Editing and Review: Very special thanks for suggestions and review to Patrick Meier (especially for the early warning addition), Lucy Bernholz, Maxine Teller, Sarah Oh, Sean McDonald, Keith Porcaro, Kelly Victor French and Mel Dickover. An extremely special thanks to awesomely talented Sarah Kahlan Dickover for the artwork!

About the paper: This paper is essentially a write-up of a last minute key-note fill-in I was asked to do in December for a large internal data event. This gave me a great opportunity to reflect on ways to improve local awareness.

If these ideas spark your interest, I am available for work on a consulting basis with government organizations, or for full time hire from organizations working on social good issues.

Access my LinkedIn profile for my background.


One last thing…

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