Sitka Technology Group

Social Capital and Lean Data

Last week's Social Capital (SOCAP) conference in San Francisco left me both inspired and hungry. A first time attending for Sitka, the goal was to see just how adjacent the social impact space is to Sitka's back forty: conservation, restoration, and sustainable development.

The short answer is pretty darn adjacent but with some different angles to consider. Both spaces have:

  1. people who see parts of the world as broken and have a passion to fix it;
  2. public demand for accountability and transparency; and
  3. people committed to measuring and evaluating results. 

Since everything flows from worldview and passion, the similarity of #1 gave me great joy and immediate hope. And since Sitka's services are most valuable when cries for accountability and transparency are loud enough to not just order the meal but have a healthy appetite to consume it, the similarity of #2 struck home. Last, I was happy to see alignment on #3; specifically its re-focus on people and the implication that they need knowledge infrastructures to scale their evaluation and analysis efforts to enable testing of their theories of change and maximize learning.

SOCAP from the air

One angle of difference is the arrival of the investor actor in the social impact scene. While the conservation space also has private and public funders who require reports summarizing how their funds were used and to what end, Wall Street types and Silicon Valley VCs have a more exacting penchant, and long history of demanding, financial metrics. And while impact investors are in the game for much more than classic ROI, their ken for metrics and indicators raises the stakes when it comes to measurement and evaluation. This is a good thing.

Another angle of deviation is the stuff being measured. In the social impact space, it's often about asking questions of humans and their experience rather than measuring acreage or air quality. As a result, the data collector's tools vary and tend to be less high tech (phones, SMS, or IVRs often do the trick quite nicely and very efficiently). This "light touch" approach enables faster data collection, but it can result in higher cost to synthesize and analyze. It is easy to contrast this with habitat surveys that are rapidly shifting from stick and tape to professional grade surveying equipment, UAVs, and LIDAR-yielding breathtaking resolution of our natural world with built-in capabilities to automatically detect change over time.

Yet the two spaces get cozy again when you look at the state of the practice of measurement. Both are far from robust. Both tend to focus on output measurements ("number of lives reached" or "number of acres treated"), and both struggle with getting to deeper understanding of how those lives experience social programs or how species and habitats respond to interventions.

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At the conference, I was treated to many great talks, but one speaker did a particularly good job at speaking out which inspired me. Sasha Dichter's 140 character profile reads, "Chief Innovation Officer; blogger and speaker on philanthropy, generosity and social change; dad." He works at Acumen, an organization dedicated to tackling poverty. He's also a data geek who has not just written about Lean Data but has practiced it extensively. 

"Lean data involves the application of lean experimentation principles to the collection and use of social impact data," Sasha writes. Inspired by lean design principles, "the approach incorporates two main features: first, a shift in mindset away from reporting and compliance and toward creating value for a company and its customers; and second, the use of methods and technologies for data collection that favor efficiency and speed while maintaining rigor." For more info, check out The Power of Lean Data published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2016.

Power of Lean Data - small thumbnail

In one of the SOCAP panels, Sasha said he thought we all had taken a wrong turn, that the impact investment space in particular had driven too far down the path of upward accountability that collects data to meet the requirements of the investors, rather than taken the path to downward accountability where data is used to improve the lives of the people from whom it was collected. That really struck home for me. 

Another really great speaker who hit on the same theme, from a very applied, "tech for good" perspective is Jim Fruchterman (@JimFruchterman), CEO of Benetech. On one panel Jim encouraged the audience to ignore "big data" for a second and just focus on capturing, summarizing, and sharing data that help people do their jobs more easily, more enjoyably, and with greater impact. If you do that, "the data trails that spin off are full of great information for them and those looking to measure their impact. For more, His recent article, also in SSIR, is inspired: "Using Data for Action and for Impact."

After 13 years working as a technologist for conservation and sustainable development (nine years at Sitka), I appreciate that the brightest spots in my rearview mirror are the times when the tools and systems we built for our clients provided clear value not just for the agency or program folks, but ALSO for the people doing the work on the ground and in the streams. And what's more, those knowledge infrastructure investments are the most durable – those tools are handier today than they were when we first delivered them.

For example, the platform gives citizens and conservation practitioners their data back to them in a way that converts it to information since they see their efforts quantified and in context of everyone else's. They, along with the folks administering various programs at Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, can see how the Lake Tahoe basin is changing (kumbaya) AND get useful summaries of individual projects they can directly use for their own outreach, advocacy building, and fundraising (time/cost saving). While the primary driver of the investment in a regional information exchange wasn't necessarily to improve the lives of the people providing information into it, that's what TRPA, Sitka, and our partner Environmental Incentives managed to design. 

So, thanks Sasha, for putting words to it. Since in my space, upward accountability is assumed and really pretty easy, the real shift, the bright spots to create going forward, are about downward accountability: data to improve the lives of people doing the good work.

I am hungry for more of that.


A few more links of interest: