“Any NGO that doesn’t put data at the centre of their operations will no longer be as relevant as they’ve been in the past,” says Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The amount of data we produce every day is truly mind-boggling. With so much information at our fingertips, we’re adding to the data stockpile every time. What does all this mean for enhancing lives at the margins? What does it mean in an age where trust in technology is high but trust in civil society organizations is low?
In this new episode of Future of Good’s Edge & Main podcast, Antonio offers first-hand insights and provocative analysis into the significance of data for the next decade of social change, and why he believes that data is critical to boosting the public trust of social impact organizations.
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Let’s start with this: How would you characterize the information age we’re living in?
I think what’s interesting for me is to witness this really great rise of technology, which has been so fast. If you think about it in the past couple of years and at the same time, the very obvious lack of regulation simply hasn’t kept up. Right? I mean, there’s this, this huge gap in between. We have this technology that keeps them rising faster and faster regulation that hasn’t simply caught up with the change. And at the same time, what we are witnessing, it’s becoming very evident obviously after the past U S election, after the referendum on Brexit here in the UK, is how information has really become weaponized. And the whole conversation around information, which has always historically been you know, left versus right, et cetera now has really become extremely toxic.
And data at the same time in all this, in all these contexts has become a very valuable currency. I mean every single action that we, we virtually take everyday leaves behind a trail of data. 2.5 quintillion bytes of information are produced every day. And if you think about any other time when, you know, the global economy slowing down is deterring for data, it continues to grow out a gigantic pace. 90% of the world’s data that we have in the world today has been generated only in the past two years alone.
If you think about it actually, unlike oil, data is completely renewable, data is man-made. It’s a source that humans create themselves and, constantly, by the way, give away most of the time for free and most of the time and willingly. And that’s why this conversation in this dichotomy of power is so powerful and interesting because you have this powerful currency that we give away because individual entry points of data are pretty much meaningless, but they become meaningful when they aggregate it. And, as individuals we’re not able to aggregate them at scale.
Should we be giving away our data for free?
I guess depending on what you are giving away for free. And I, I do believe in open sourcing and in open data. I think it’s a question that goes back to regulation. Who am I giving this data for free to and how is my data being used? The conversation around if you want to, digital rights and the ownership of data I think creates a number of issues. I mean, I think the question for me is not about ownership, but about the regulation of the ecosystem that regulates that data because you can virtually you can still, I guess until today decide that you don’t want to give your data away, but the reality and practicality of it will be there. You will be completely locking yourself out of the conversation. It means that you won’t be even able to use a Google map on your phone because that of course opens up a data flow. So you know, effectively opting out means, you know, missing out.
It seems like there is a firm-based camp (USA), a user-based camp (Europe), and a state-based camp (China) emerging for data ecosystem globally. Is there another option?
I think there is space for an NGO type of regulator or data repository system that will manage data for us. I tend to think that obviously that speaking definitely for the UK and other Western countries, government most likely will be involved in these activities. But I think there is space for civil society to actually enter that. I mean you think of food banks in that has been popping up at the time of crisis. Those were very much civil society led initiatives that were solving a very practical problem. I would imagine that there will be a space for a civil society led initiatives that try to really solve and provide solutions when it comes to data ownership and data flows.
So much of the work of the foundation is grounded in the word ‘trust’. What does that personally mean to you and what have you learned about how it’s changing?
Trust is another very powerful currency these days. Just before this conversation I was glancing over the Edelman trust barometer, which comes out every December. We have trust for technology at 78%, perhaps one of the most highest indicators. And then when it comes to a trust for the media, you’re looking at 47%. And trust in NGOs and civil society is 57%. I think we are leading in a world where trust is taken definitely a different, a different shape if you want to. It is shifting towards categories that no longer were associated with high level of trust in the past.
If trust in technology is high but trust in NGOs is low, can NGOs use technology to boost their public trust?
Absolutely. I think that’s the sweet spot. I would love to see technology working more closely with civil society and coming out with solutions that can really leverage the best of both the expertise and know-how at the moment. It isn’t really happening. And I think that should unleash massive potential for civil society and for technology also too, you know even experiment with new techniques, and new use the job of a technology of technologists or maybe have been designed to do something very different.
Because I think you cannot not include data in, in any meaningful conversation that wants to achieve systemic change. You just simply cannot do it. It’s not an option anymore. And I think any NGO that doesn’t put data at the centre of their operations, will no longer be as relevant as they have been in the past because we are going at a much faster rate.
Data allows us to make better decisions in terms of where are we deploying training, who is best qualified to attend our training courses, and more. We have improved our training and then we allow us to remain in touch with specific people in community, in specific countries and enter entering much more meaningful dialogue. So it, I mean, data is at the centre of everything.
I mean, I think the two things are not binary. They’re absolutely working together. I mean if you’re talking about, I’m just talking about humanitarian interventions here, which is not really the business in which we’re in, but obviously if there is a humanitarian disaster you are going to send a people on the ground. But if you can use a technology to make better informed decisions on where to deploy those people or even using drones for example, to move goods around. We’re not replacing humans with them with technology altogether, but we need technology, we need to use technology to make better informed choices.
Who’s doing this today?
I’m thinking of two organizations that are actually adopting this approach and doing fantastic work. One is the Rockefeller Foundation, which has really shifted towards data as one of their main areas of work. And another one is the Gates Foundation. All the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on health has really been based on data.
I mean if you are in the NGO space, you’re always asked the question, how do you measure your success? How do you consider your success? And unfortunately, it anecdotes are fine and they’re powerful, and you need anecdotes to kind of contextualize the narrative that people can understand, but you need data and you need the right set of data.
Data is all around us but have we reached peak data in your mind? I mean, analog and offline is making a come back. Is that possible that we could generate less data in the future?
I mean, it’s like asking, we invented the plane, but people like taking the train. Do you think we’re going to be seeing less planes in the sky in the future? No. I mean it’s, it’s the way technology goes. I mean, look at Facebook, look at how many people openly dislike Facebook, but then they are there. Why are they, why are they there? Because in that case, because it’s pretty much as almost a monopoly, there isn’t really an alternative to Facebook the way there isn’t really an alternative to Twitter.
They are there because they might dislike the management or they might dislike the way Facebook has been handling the data that it gets, they’re there because they want to be connected. I mean, you remember a couple of years ago, people would give their email address to stay in touch. I mean, professionally it still happens. You hand in a business card, although now you have people that have this fancy idea that you shake your phone and somehow it sends a business card. Now you ask what’s your WhatsApp number? So if you think about how change has been ingrained within our culture I can not simply see you know, switching off as an option.
Why has been so hard for NGOs to use technology and become data-centric?
I guess because it’s a moment in time in which people are just now starting to understand how data it really impacts their lives. Again, if you think, just recently, 10 years ago, I used to think that, you know, to be interested in data really meant that I was an IT specialist or a computer scientist. Right? today I don’t associate the word technology with my desktop or, or something that’s necessarily geeky.
What would you say to the people who say NGOs are human-centric, not data-centric?
It’s really starting to only now, I guess becoming a more concrete concept in nonprofits are simply going through a similar process and understanding that it is something that you simply cannot do without. But at the same time, there are funding issues and some technology is expensive. And obviously it’s a huge risk and an opportunity for an NGO. And if you are a small NGO, that is always struggling to, you know, to get to the end of the year and to have your, you know, your papers approved by, you know, by the board or even by by an external audit. I mean, you will not simply invest a significant chunk of your money into knowledge. But as I said earlier, the two things are not binary and actually investing in technology may very well allow you to improve the quality of your programmatic work. You know, as I said, tech opens up opportunity when it comes to better monitoring your output and your impact. And that’s an opportunity that we shouldn’t be missing as a sector.
Is there a role for funders to boost the data capability and infrastructure for NGOs?
I think there’s a role for funders to do. We maybe even the case specific funding the boosting of the infrastructure in terms of technology or specific companies, the way you might have you know, some funders are interested in scaling capacity through fundraising skills or monitoring and evaluation skills. I think there is a space therefore funders to just dedicate specific funding for a technological support or even a technology audit within organizations. Google.org is obviously one, I know that Salesforce.org is as well, but mostly they are American firms and have the Silicon Valley attitude. And I think we need to see more of those examples.
If nonprofits continue to have a distant professional relationship with data, where does that leave us and social progress in your mind?
I think its not just about the question of slowing down. I think if civil society fails to understand even the risks so not just the opportunities but also the risks that technology brings along, we will be even looking at a shutdown of civil society space because of technology. I’m thinking of you know, and this comes really to the intersectionality between technology and human rights. And, you see issues with face technology, with face ID, technology, face face recognition, technology being used in certain countries as a, as a weapon, as a tool of control.
That’s why, it goes back to this idea of algorithms and you know, technology in humans because clearly there needs to be the two things are not excluding each other. Even issues which is a first glance appear to be absolutely non-controversial, such as whether violent content should be removed and therefore more efforts should be placed in technology that allows to patrol the internet and remove violent content. Everybody would initially say, of course, that’s, then that’s a no brainer. And then you go actually into looking at the other side and are the NGOs that are, were using and collating that material as evidence.
In creating social progress, an over-reliance on algorithmic decision-making and recommendations also has its blind spots. What are these blind spots?
I guess, this issue of losing control for the NGO before everybody. And that for me is a race. I mean, I give you another example, which I always find a pretty chilling and it’s it comes from from Shenzhen in China. And the journalist was quoted in a Bloomberg documentary. I think it was over a year and a half ago by the way tells his story of being in Shenzhen and crossing the road. And by the time it gets to the other side of the sidewalk of the road the mobile on his phone buzzes. And once he picks up the phone, he realizes that he had been charged I think something like $5.
And that amount had been already automatically taken out of his Alipay, which is the equivalent of Apple pay in China. And the reason why that happened is because he, J-crossed the road and so automatically through facial ID he was charged without having a say. And that was obviously happened because there is a technology that allows that to happen. So imagine what kind of dystopian world we could be living in unless we inject ethics at the very beginning of that conversation that I was saying, you know, when ethics that must be placed at the very beginning of the journey, and I think that’s where NGOs and civil society can actually play a meaningful role.