Why Geeks (like Me) Promote Transparency

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.
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Public Domain image by Takada

Last week, I shared a lengthy piece that could be summed up as:

“in a world where everyone can broadcast anything, there is no privacy, so transparency is your best defense.”

(Mind you, we’d be dropping a number of nuanced points to do that!)

Transparency, it turns out, has been a bit of a meme in nonprofit blogging circles lately. I was particularly excited by this post by Marnie Webb, one of the many CEO’s at the uber-resource provider and support organization Techsoup Global.

Marnie makes a series of points:

Meaningful shared data, like the Miles Per Gallon ratings on new car stickers or the calorie counts on food packaging help us make better choices;But not all data is as easy to interpret;Nonprofits have continually been challenged to quantify the conditions that their missions address;

Shared knowledge and metrics will facilitate far better dialog and solutions than our individual efforts have;

The web is a great vehicle for sharing, analyzing and reporting on data;

Therefore, the nonprofit sector should start defining and adopting common data formats that support shared analysis and reporting.

I’ve made the case before for shared outcomes reporting, which is a big piece of this. Sharing and transparency aren’t traditional approaches to our work. Historically, we’ve siloed our efforts, even to the point where membership-based organizations are guarded about sharing with other members.

The reason that technologists like Marnie and I end up jumping on this bandwagon is that the tech industry has modeled the disfunction of a siloed approach better than most. early computing was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. If you regularly used Lotus 123, Wordperfect and dBase (three of the most popular business applications circa 1989) on your MS-DOS PC, then hitting “/“, F7 or “.” were the things you needed to know in order to close those applications respectively. For most of my career, I stuck with PCs for home use because I needed compatibility with work, and the Mac operating system, prior to OSX, just couldn’t easily provide that.

The tech industry has slowly and painfully progressed towards a model that competes on the sales and services level, but cooperates on the platform side. Applications, across manufacturers and computing platforms, function with similar menus and command sequences. Data formats are more commonly shared. Options are available for saving in popular, often competitive formats (as in Word’s “Save As” offering Wordperfect and Lotus formats). The underlying protocols that fuel modern operating systems and applications are far more standardized. Windows, Linux and MacOS all use the same technologies to manage users and directories, network systems and communicate with the world. Microsoft, Google, Apple and others in the software world are embracing open standards and interoperability. This makes me, the customer, much less of an innocent bystander who is constantly sniped by their competitive strategies.

So how does this translate to our social service, advocacy and educational organizations? Far too often, we frame cooperation as the antithesis to competition. That’s a common, but crippling mistake. The two can and do coexist in almost every corner of our lives. We need to adopt a “rising tide” philosophy that values the work that we can all do together over the work that we do alone, and have some faith that the sustainable model is an open, collaborative one. Looking at each opportunity to collaborate from the perspective of how it will enhance our ability to accomplish our public-serving goals. And trusting that this won’t result in the similarly-focused NGO down the street siphoning off our grants or constituents.

As Marnie is proposing, we need to start discussing and developing data standards that will enable us to interoperate on the level where we can articulate and quantify the needs that our mission-focused organizations address. By jointly assessing and learning from the wealth of information that we, as a community of practice collect, we can be far more effective. We need to use that data to determine our key strategies and best practices. And we have to understand that, as long as we’re treating information as competitive data; as long as we’re keeping it close to our vests and looking at our peers as strictly competitors, the fallout of this cold war is landing on the people that we’re trying to serve. We owe it to them to be better stewards of the information that lifts them out of their disadvantaged conditions.

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