The Brave New World of Good

Brad Smith: “Welcome to the Brave New World of Good. Once almost the exclusive province of nonprofit organizations and the philanthropic foundations that fund them, today the terrain of good is disputed by social entrepreneurs, social enterprises, impact investors, big business, governments, and geeks. Their tools of choice are markets, open data, innovation, hackathons, and disruption. They cross borders, social classes, and paradigms with the swipe of a touch screen. We seemed poised to unleash a whole new era of social and environmental progress, accompanied by unimagined economic prosperity.
As a brand, good is unassailably brilliant. Who could be against it? It is virtually impossible to write an even mildly skeptical blog post about good without sounding well, bad — or at least a bit old-fashioned. For the record, I firmly believe there is much in the brave new world of good that is helping us find our way out of the tired and often failed models of progress and change on which we have for too long relied. Still, there are assumptions worth questioning and questions worth answering to ensure that the good we seek is the good that can be achieved.

Open Data
Second only to “good” in terms of marketing genius is the concept of “open data.” An offspring of previous movements such as “open source,” “open content,” and “open access,” open data in the Internet age has come to mean data that is machine-readable, free to access, and free to use, re-use, and re-distribute, subject to attribution. Fully open data goes way beyond posting your .pdf document on a Web site (as neatly explained by Tim Berners Lee’s five-star framework).
When it comes to government, there is a rapidly accelerating movement around the world that is furthering transparency by making vast stores of data open. Ditto on the data of international aid funders like the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The push has now expanded to the tax return data of nonprofits and foundations (IRS Forms 990). Collection of data by government has a business model; it’s called tax dollars. However, open data is not born pure. Cleaning that data, making it searchable, and building and maintaining reliable user interfaces is complex, time-consuming, and often expensive. That requires a consistent stream of income of the kind that can only come from fees, subscriptions, or, increasingly less so, government.
Foundation grants are great for short-term investment, experimentation, or building an app or two, but they are no substitute for a scalable business model. Structured, longitudinal data are vital to social, environmental, and economic progress. In a global economy where government is retreating from the funding of public goods, figuring how to pay for the cost of that data is one of our greatest challenges.”