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Walking the Talk: Philanthropy 'Does' Big Data

October 09, 2012

(Bradford K. Smith is president of the Foundation Center. In his last post, he took a closer look at the China Foundation Center's new Foundation Transparency Index.)

Africa_Reporting_CommitmentWith the modestly labeled "Reporting Commitment," fifteen of America's largest foundations are transforming the practice of philanthropy. From today on, information about their grants will be made available on a near-real-time basis, as entirely open data and coded to a common geographical standard, making it easy to see the communities, regions, and countries that benefit from those grants. The initiative's simple name should not deceive: this is big. The participants -- Annenberg, Carnegie, Gates, Getty, Hewlett, Packard, MacArthur, Mott, Robert Wood Johnson, and six others -- provide nearly 12 percent of the $46 billion in grants made by American foundations each year. To see the Reporting Commitment in action, take a quick look at Glasspockets, the transparency Web site of the Foundation Center, then read on.

What makes the Reporting Commitment so transformative? Let's break it down.

A Bold Idea -- Real-Time Reporting
The fifteen participating foundations have committed to electronically report their current grants data to the Foundation Center on at least a quarterly basis. As pragmatic as this may sound, it's a dramatic departure from the norm for the field. All the 76,000 private foundations in America file 990-PF tax returns in which they provide information on their grants. They have up to a year after the close of their fiscal year to file these returns, the Foundation Center eventually gets them from the IRS as image files and converts them into a more usable format, cleans and codes the data, and insures public access through databases and research reports. In a world where value is being created exponentially by analyzing enormous real-time data sets generated through search logs, consumer purchases, and Facebook "likes," philanthropy remains an industry with $640 billion in assets that relies on two-year old data to understand its own grant trends.

The Foundation Center has convinced more than seven hundred foundations to electronically submit their grants information through its eGrant Reporting Program, covering more than 20 percent of total foundation giving. Although this provides the field with current-year grants data, most participating foundations report on an annual basis. The Reporting Commitment takes this effort one important step forward by having participating foundations report at least quarterly -- with some reporting weekly, even daily.

A Radical Idea -- Open Data
By and large, foundations tend to think of open data and transparency as something they should fund rather than do. There are lots of reasons for this, including the private nature of foundations, the cultural legacy of keeping a low profile and "letting our good works speak for themselves," and sensitivity surrounding some of the issues addressed by foundation grants. Notwithstanding, the ability of foundations to not call attention to themselves is being steadily eroded by the ease of finding, displaying, and circulating information in a densely networked, digital age. Meanwhile, sectors and institutions with which foundations increasingly collaborate, such as the World Bank and foreign aid donors, are barreling ahead with initiatives like the Open Aid Partnership and Publish What You Fund.

The fifteen Reporting Commitment foundations have chosen to get ahead of the curve by taking the radical step of making their grants data entirely open. Under the agreement forged among them, they will either submit their data in machine-readable format or have the Foundation Center convert it so that it can be "harvested" by computers and used by developers to create apps, dashboards, visualizations, and things we haven't yet imagined. To make it easier, Glasspockets features a query builder that allows users to construct their own search and then "grab" the resulting data via an API.

A Strategic Idea -- GeoCoding
Some five years ago, when the Foundation Center started visualizing foundation grants data on interactive online maps, the most common reaction was, "You only show the location of the grantee organization, not the geographic focus of the grant." There was a reason for this: the vast majority of foundations, even those that electronically submit their data to the Foundation Center, do not include any coding for geographic area served. And even when there was a clue embedded in the grant description, there was no single standard that foundations used to describe the world; commonly used phrases such as "Deep South," "Middle East," and "developing countries" do not have agreed-upon definitions. That's why so many mapping visualizations (including our own) consign grants with insufficient or no geographic coding to big bubbles floating around in the ocean.

The Reporting Commitment foundations want to be able to compare their grants data with other participating foundations' data, from the community level all the way up to the continental level, to better identify gaps and areas of overlap and be more strategic about their giving. Thus they have agreed to use the GeoTree developed by the Foundation Center as an open geographic standard for use by philanthropy and the social sector. Geographic coding, or geocoding, as it is commonly known, requires a degree of specificity and decision making (i.e., how to handle grants that benefit multiple locations) that is something of a new discipline for most foundations. An interactive mapping tool on Glasspockets allows users to filter and search more than 3,800 grants by city/town, state/province, country, continent, or keyword. As participating foundations geocode more and more of their grants, the volume of data visualized on this map will expand.

A Mission-Critical Idea -- Transparency
When the Foundation Center was created in 1956 as a response to McCarthy-era hearings on philanthropy, transparency meant collecting printed reports from foundations and organizing them in file cabinets for public inspection. Today, it increasingly means open data. For an organization that has built a successful business model that relies on revenue from subscription databases to sustain an enormous volume of free information and services provided to more than nine million users, this may seem like risky business -- and it is. But the future of the Foundation Center requires disrupting its role as a data publisher. In the end, it is the Foundation Center's ability to analyze and combine multiple streams of information and analysis that adds value to data. And it is technology and networks that will allow the center to deliver knowledge into the hands of organizations and individuals who can leverage it to change the world.

Thanks to the vision, leadership, and hard work of the fifteen Reporting Commitment foundations, philanthropy has taken a crucial public step. Other foundations wishing to join the commitment can get started by contacting the Foundation Center. Later this year and again in 2013, the Foundation Center plans to release new and exciting forms of open data. While philanthropy may have been slow to get there, it is finally entering the era of Big Data.

-- Brad Smith

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