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From Open Data to Open Knowledge: Foundations, Nonprofits, and the Production of Ideas

November 08, 2012

(Bradford K. Smith is president of the Foundation Center. In his last post, he looked at what philanthropy can do to help underresourced communities in tough economic times.)

IssueLabIf you think foundations are only ATM machines and nonprofits just service providers, think again. With the launch of IssueLab, there is one place you can go to find more than eleven thousand knowledge products published, funded, produced, and/or generated by foundations and nonprofits in the U.S. and around the globe.

Last month, the Foundation Center announced the Reporting Commitment, an effort by fifteen of America's largest philanthropic foundations to make their grants data -- who they give money to, how much, where, and for what purpose -- available in an open, machine-readable format. Starting today, through IssueLab, the social sector can also access what it knows as a result of that funding. A service of the Foundation Center, IssueLab gathers, indexes, and shares the sector's collective intelligence on a free, open, and searchable platform, and encourages users to share, copy, distribute, and even adapt the work. It's a big step for philanthropy and "open knowledge."

What's in it for you? Read on.

Issues -- IssueLab is about issues. Been hearing about employment this election season? There are more than twelve hundred reports in the IssueLab collection with titles like The Problem with Structural Employment in the U.S. Interested in energy and the environment? You can choose from nearly eight hundred and fifty titles, including Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race?

Authors -- Some of the world's best minds are busy analyzing the challenges, successes, failures, and lessons learned by the social sector. From Melinda Abrams to Stephen Zuckerman, you can browse the IssueLab collection by author, identifying issue experts in dozens of fields.

Geography -- IssueLab lets you search the globe for reports related to the continent, country, region, or city that interests you most. China? Read about the growth of foundations and public charities there or the impact of returning entrepreneurs on the Chinese economy.

Organizations -- Maybe you work at a foundation that wants to know more about the "thought leadership" of a prospective grantee. Or you're a consultant working with a donor who wants to learn more about charter schools before she starts making grants. IssueLab allows you to search by a particular organization, assess the breadth of its knowledge output, and dive into individual reports.

Special Collections -- Within hours of Hurricane Sandy making landfall, IssueLab posted a special collection of reports from foundations, nonprofits, and think tanks that reflect on and distill lessons learned from the response to past disasters. The title of the first resource listed says it all: Creating Order from Chaos: Roles for Philanthropy in Disaster Planning and Response.

Free -- IssueLab is a free online service; it belongs to the social sector for which the Foundation Center already serves as a central knowledge source. Anyone can explore the IssueLab collection to find (and share) the knowledge they need. You can also register to have issue alerts and e-newsletters delivered directly to your e-mail account.

Open -- Free is good, but IssueLab promotes openness in a number of other ways. First, the metadata -- the abstracts and "tags" developed for all reports in the collection -- is available under a Creative Commons license and can be grabbed and/or remixed by anyone as long as they use it for non-commercial purposes. Second, only work that is available for free is included in the IssueLab collection. These are public "assets," in that the organizations which produced them already have tax-exempt status and/or have received government funding, and they should be easy for the public to find. Sorry but Kardashian Konfidential will not be found on IssueLab. Third, IssueLab itself is an open-source platform whose underlying codebase/framework is continually being improved by a community of developers. And fourth, our own developers embrace the Open Archives Initiative (OAI), which develops and promotes interoperability standards to facilitate the efficient dissemination of online content.

Distributed -- IssueLab also builds third-party Knowledge Centers. Beyond helping to make your own research and reports more accessible on your Web site, Knowledge Centers link you and your knowledge output to a broader universe of users and potential collaborators. For example, a report on advocacy around water access issues posted to the WASHfunders Knowledge Center immediately becomes part of the underlying IssueLab collection and from there is shared with Wiser Earth, an online community of 72,852 users committed to sustainability, as well as the online WorldCat network of ten thousand libraries.

As more and more of it becomes open and free, data are becoming both ubiquitous and commoditized. In a world awash in petabytes of information, managing -- and sharing -- knowledge effectively will be the crucial distinction between those organizations that produce lasting change and those that merely do good. From open data to open knowledge, ideas matter. Now you can find them on IssueLab, a service of the Foundation Center.

-- Brad Smith

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