Capturing well-being, not simply access and speed

In January the Associated Press had a widely run article entitled “For minorities, new ‘digital divide’ appears” by Jesse Washington. On the Digital Inclusion Network commenter Jeff Smith wrote of it:

For me, this article perfectly frames a long-standing problem in public policy: understanding access vs. use, and making judgments about those uses.

Following trends in public policy, academic study and government services, most practitioners measure access, delivery speed & delivery accuracy. Usual questions in need of answering are: What percentage of eligible persons have access to this program? How quickly did they receive services and Did the right person(s) get the proper amounts according to his/her eligibility?

A perfect example comes from the perfect example comes from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. For years, government simply made food stamps available to those who were eligible and knew about it. Then a concerted effort was made to increase the amount of people who knew about the program. Metrics being monitored were about access, delivery speed and delivery accuracy. It’s not that these metrics do not make sense, but they’re inadequate to understand efficacy. Until recently, very little has gone into designing a SNAP system that can measure a person’s well-being after having used food stamps. This problem spans many human services programs, but a lot of work is going into better-understanding how aid is used.

Turning to mobile phone access versus use, my own research indicates that access only tells a fraction of the story. In a 2005 study, Leonard Waverman, Fellow at the London Business School and Dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, found that, “A developing country which had an average of 10 more mobile phones per 100 population between 1996 and 2003 would have enjoyed per capita GDP growth that was 0.59 percent higher than an otherwise identical country.” After updating that study with data spanning to 2008, I found that increasing mobile phones by 10 per 100 people had a far smaller affect on per capita GDP growth (around four times less impact that the 2005 study indicated). This was in line with intuition. Dramatic increases of mobile phone use in the world’s poorest nations (The Gambia saw 0 per 100 in 2000; by 2008, the country had over 70 mobile phones per 100 people) did very little to translate to actual gains in per capita GDP growth in those nations.

Does this mean that cell phones in poor countries have had no effect on making lives better or enhancing economic growth? No. But it means that simply giving access to technology will yield similarly simplistic results. In fact, a study about fish markets in India is a great example of how cell phones have had significant dividends for communities (users and non-users alike). See study pdf at: http://bit.ly/hhzAue

As more people look to delineate access and use, as Pew and others are trying to do, especially among different socio-economic classes or races, policy questions must try to capture some measures of well-being - not simply access and speed.


Philanthropy's progressive legacy

The following excerpts is from a paper Lenore T. Ealy and Steven D. Ealy entitled “Progressivism and Philanthropy”, published in _ The Good Society. _Author Stephen D. Ealy is a senior fellow at the conservative Liberty Fund, so take this article’s purpose “to understand how we might best articulate a new rationale for philanthropic enterprises that are today working to return social responsibility to local communities and to support the emergence of new forms of mutual aid and voluntary action” with salt:

For the Progressives, many of whom had roots in Republican reformism, charity was an ineffective and insufficient system for promoting the general welfare and for ameliorating perceived economic and social injustice. At the heart of the Progressive diagnosis of the problem was a view of charity as an unsystematic, temporary, and superficial ointment that failed to address the root causes of problems. Many commentators thought that charity might improve conditions for the individual but left undisturbed the diseased social order that contributed to poverty. Some commentators went further in their critique, arguing that charity not only failed to assist even its recipients but left them increasingly in a state of pauperization, dependent on the handouts of others. For other reformers, the voluntary decentralized nature of charity administration led to needless duplication and waste.

[…]

Contributing to the diagnosis and prescription for charity reformation were several currents that further eroded more traditional views that rooted charity in the soil of religious obligations and the practices of mutual aid and charity. The emerging Social Gospel movement merged secular and religious concerns into what was perceived as a “higher” form of Christianity and demanded more wholesale remediation of social ills. The moral fulcrum of aid was no longer to be the personal discretion of givers about the moral fitness of a recipient but was to be anchored in a postmillennial pietism that sought to build the kingdom of God on earth.

Defining pauperism and justice in broadly social terms required looking for environmental and structural, as opposed to moral, causes of pauperism. The pursuit of structural problems and solutions eliminated the need for distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor that had not only guided Victorian philanthropists but had also been a useful tool for mutual aid and other cooperative societies that depended on expectations of reciprocity among deserving, if occasionally unfortunate, peers.

The movement from the moral world of charity to the moral world of social activism displaced the virtue of liberality expressed in gift-giving and traditional forms of mutual aid and voluntary association. By elevating the state as the central agent for the distribution of welfare goods, the Progressives paved the way for the displacement of dispersed, conscientious, personal judgment of citizens by the centralized, rationalized, professional administration of civil servants.

[…]

III. Social Science and Modern Philanthropy The Progressive-era confidence in social scientific technique as a means of social control informed the changing view of the role of philanthropy in society. The quest for a more “scientific philanthropy” shared the Progressive desire to diagnose and treat through orderly systematic means the “root causes” of poverty. Government was seen by many as a benign and appropriate partner in this pursuit.

As early as 1899 it was common to define as philanthropists not merely those among the wealthy who endowed foundations but “all persons who have devoted themselves in any systematic way to charitable or educational work.” Joseph Lee argued that philanthropists had “a duty to perform in the systematic study and promotion of progressive social legislation.” For Lee, this “promotion” could include calling in experts to advise on the implementation of beneficial legislation and to develop rational programs and measures for the “cure of all social ills.”

Writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1900, Charles Richmond Henderson suggested that the application of science in philanthropy required greater “practical coordination of the special knowledge of economists, lawyers, physicians, [and] educators.” This coordination would be best realized by centralizing supervisory power over charitable institutions in state level boards and by promoting the principles of civil service reform in charitable and correctional institutions to ensure that they were in the hands of trained administrators.

Edward Devine surveyed the field of “voluntary philanthropy” in 1913 and identified three principal strands worth considering: “those programs which have to do with making governmental action more effective, or extending its sphere,” “foundations for the study of and improvement of social conditions,” and “these philanthropic agencies which our generation has inherited, such as hospitals, relief societies, orphan asylums, and the like.”

Devine identified the latter class of organizations as those that would preserve “the ideal of an independent citizen of an industrial democracy, earning his own living, providing for his own emergencies, and relying for support even in old age on the accumulated savings of his productive period.” By contrast, the bureaus of research and various reform agencies falling into the first class of organizations were those that sought to improve conditions not primarily for individuals but for society as a whole. Participants in these organizations “looked toward better government as a prime means of securing social welfare reform.” This did not imply paternalism but reflected “the deliberate intention to use the governmental machinery for the doing of those things for which experience shows it to be more efficient and more economical than any other means yet devised.”

Interestingly, Devine was agnostic about the future of the emerging foundations and believed that for the most part they were conservative institutions that were more comfortably aligned with traditional charity organizations than with emerging reform agencies. Devine suggested that the foundations for the most part represented the vested interests of old wealth more than the well-being of future generations and claimed that “their natural attitude toward state action for the social welfare is one of distrust, or at least of hesitation about greatly enlarging its functions.” Nevertheless, Devine acknowledged the strong influence of their founders on the foundations’ approaches to solving social problems, and believed that future foundations would have to stake their ground either with “the Bureau of Municipal Research type of philanthropy” or with “the type of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.”

Devine’s characterization of Carnegie as ultimately more sympathetic with the ends of charity organization than more bureaucratic social reform seems apt. While Carnegie shared the “scientific” desire to address root causes of social problems and saw traditional charity through alms as injurious to individuals, examination of his giving practices reveals a comparatively traditional focus with the emphasis on administration of gifts at the local community level rather than through national bureaus.

What was unique and unfamiliar about the newly endowed foundations was the potential magnitude of their philanthropy and the fear that the application of such great wealth would allow for personal influence and control “beyond the legitimate boundaries implied in their benefactions.” Devine, for example, was critical of Carnegie’s pension fund for teachers for trying “to eradicate sectarian control of colleges.”

Another challenge faced by foundation philanthropists was how to effectively manage the disbursement of large amounts of money. Undoubtedly the industrialists who founded the endowments hoped to enjoy some form of psychic satisfaction from their beneficence, whether by realizing a desire for fame, fulfilling a sense of indebtedness to the public, or perhaps implementing a hopeful program of social reform. Nevertheless, the administration of grant making on this scale entailed special challenges. George Iles commented on the problems of “large giving” in The Century in 1897: “It is hard for rich and forceful men to learn that they must rein their instinct for command when they enter an unfamiliar field. The tactful adjustment of relations between men who have and do not know, and men who know and do not have, is familiar enough in the sphere of business. The same adjustment arrives, sometimes after sharp conflicts, in the administration of large gifts.”

Clearly, the stage was set in the Progressive era for “men who know” to exert their influence not only in the field of civil service but in the administration of philanthropic and charitable institutions as well. The professionalism and presumption of technical expertise of the emerging administrative class, however, could often exist in tension with the express intent of donors, the insights of grassroots, local knowledge, and the common sense of American cultural and legal traditions.

[…]

VI. The Progressive Legacy in Philanthropy In the end we are left with the challenge of evaluating the Progressive legacy for modern philanthropy. Progressive-era foundations emerged from the confluence of several streams. Industrial organization enabled the creation and accumulation of vast wealth by entrepreneurial individuals. Industrial urbanization and immigration generated widespread social dislocation and the transformation of labor. Legal developments in corporate organization made possible the creation of endowed foundations with corporate status, despite a continuing ambivalence toward the role of endowments in a free society. The rise of formal social science disciplines fostered a new ethic of public service and a newly placed hope in the social scientists as pilots of the national course.

Many ideas and attitudes from the era seem to persist in the self-understanding of foundation philanthropy today. Here we simply highlight some of these:

  • Public-private partnerships are not a bad idea
  • Hope and idealism — progress is possible
  • Faith in the power of organization
  • Foundation focus on institutional change
  • An almost unmitigated faith in the power of reason and an equally strong faith in “science” and technical expertise, with the result that today’s philanthropy is often seen as a matter of expertise, organization, and effectiveness rather than of a richer, deeper social conversation
  • A distinctive interpretation of American history, a la Croly, embracing Jeffersonian democracy and Hamiltonian centralization. A suspicion of “interests.”
  • Belief that a middle way could be found between state socialism and a laissez faire republic
  • An absence of constructive humility
  • A European perspective on America marked by the importation of the European “social problem” and the pursuit of European, especially Prussian, solutions
  • Pragmatism unrestrained by healthy skepticism
  • Weak attention to the unintended consequences of institutional change
  • A belief that centralized, large scale solutions were feasible and necessary and the attack of problems (such as the conquest of communicable diseases) that lent themselves to this model
  • A largely instrumental approach to local, grassroots organizations leading to the pursuit of economies of scale often without attention to the key elements of real success

[…]


A reminder that it's still about power

Mark Rosenman impeccably synthesizes the need for building political power in the philanthropic sector. Writing for Philantopic (emphasis mine):

Grantmaking foundations are being taught an important lesson, but most of them don’t seem inclined to learn it. The Tea Party movement has shown that building political power is of much greater consequence to the causes foundations care about than is their support for innovative and scaled-up programs in the nonprofit sector.

Although foundations desperately want to be “more impactful” than current practices allow, they generally settle for becoming more effective at what they already do. Rarely does any truly fresh approach to grantmaking get serious consideration. And in spite of this being a “teachable moment,” too few funders fully recognize the importance of government and even fewer are willing to talk about power. Unfortunately, that has become the essential conversation.

The import of government for foundations has long been clear to some funders, many of whom have pushed themselves and their peers to provide greater support for critical public policies and programs. Today’s challenge to philanthropy, however, goes far beyond its support for advocacy and an often narrow focus on parochial interests.

Indeed, what is at stake today is nothing less than who has the power to define government’s role with respect to the common good. The lesson being taught foundations is that without the power to implement advocated policies, problems of concern to philanthropy will rapidly grow more complex and intractable.

Most of the troubles we face as a society, and that foundations seek to address, reflect failures of government to effectively moderate the forces that created those problems in the first place. Whether those problems originate in the failures of the market and the sometimes-destructive behavior of corporations, in the poor performance of public and private institutions, or in the dysfunctional conduct of individuals, governments can and should do something about them.

Markets and corporations need effective regulation to ensure the orderly conduct of business and to provide public protections. Institutions need leadership, accountability, and resources to promote the public interest. And individuals can both be encouraged and helped to behave in their own and society’s best interests. Government is a critical player in each of these realms and an essential partner to philanthropies that seek to address problems in all of them.

The current arguments for smaller, cheaper, and weaker government are, at least in part, a response to the perceived inadequacy of the public sector’s efforts to provide effective protections and deliver programs and services efficiently. Yet, while some believe that the scope of laws, regulations, social programs, and taxes exceeds acceptable limits, the majority of Americans continue to want better safeguards and services; many are even willing to pay higher taxes to make sure that appropriate regulations and programs are available.

Simply advocating for that position and/or improved government responsiveness isn’t sufficient in our current political reality. The momentum in the pro-/anti-government debate has swung toward the latter – a development that hasn’t happened spontaneously. It is, instead, the result of some funders, even a few foundations, understanding that it’s all about power.

In funding citizen-engagement work and by using sympathetic media outlets, uber-wealthy conservatives like the Koch brothers, the folks at the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and many other like-minded philanthropists have helped build the Tea Party movement into an important force in our democracy.

The anti-government ideology advanced by those donors and activists holds profound negative consequence for most of organized philanthropy and its causes. But few foundations have come to a recognition that they ought to support a counterbalancing power, one that serves aggregated interests across the nonprofit world.

Because foundations and charities are prohibited from partisan political spending, some content themselves with efforts to strengthen democratic participation. Few, however, really focus on it. But while electoral politics appropriately remains a forbidden zone for tax-exempt entities, foundations are free to encourage robust civic engagement and to support and develop social movements in pursuit of the common good.

Unfortunately, most of philanthropy steers clear of such efforts, even though the exercise of political power today is undercutting work long championed and supported by foundations.

[…]

We might not like to admit it, but the momentum behind tax cuts and public-sector retrenchment is unlikely to fade unless foundations undertake a new kind of grantmaking, one that goes beyond funding services and advocacy and aims explicitly at building power in support of a government committed to, and capable of, taking action on the myriad problems that confront us – including rational and humane approaches to deficit reduction.

This will require direct organizing as well as efforts to educate the public about vital government programs and regulations that work. We need significant investment in projects that mobilize the grassroots. To support such movement-building, we also need additional funding for public policy work, for advocacy, for mass media, and for social networking campaigns.

Even though they provide less than 2 percent of total nonprofit sector revenues, foundations can play a unique, some might even say a heroic, role in energizing and mobilizing the millions upon millions of Americans involved in charitable work to stand up for their concerns through greater engagement in our democratic process. It is time for philanthropy to step up and help build popular political power for the common good.


Reductionist function and practice

Rob Haitani on Palm OS from Designing Interactions:

One bit of advice that I gave to people designing the Palm OS was, “If you can really understand the one thing your customer wants to do most frequently, and make that a one-step process, then I guarantee people will like the product.”

Just say, “What is the one thing you want to do?” and even if you have to throw out conventions of logic, architecture, and hierarchy, you should make that one step. The more “illogical” your approach is, the less likely it is that it will blindly follow the conventional wisdom, and hence the more likely it becomes that you will be able to differentiate and create a successful product relative to your competition, If you take the conventional approach, by definition you’re not innovating. If you just say, “Here are all the features,” and you lay them out in a logical pattern, then that’s not going to be a successful product.

From Michael Lopp’s interview of Instapaper’s Marco Arment:

Were there design decisions you made early on in order to manage that? What were they?

Absolutely.

The biggest design decision I’ve made is more of a continuous philosophy: do as few extremely time-consuming features as possible. As a result, Instapaper is a collection of a bunch of very easy things and only a handful of semi-hard things.

This philosophy sounds simple, but it isn’t: geeks like us are always tempted to implement very complex, never-ending features because they’re academically or algorithmically interesting, or because they can add massive value if done well, such as speech or handwriting recognition, recommendation engines, or natural-language processing.

These features — often very easy for people but very hard for computers — often produce mediocre-at-best results, are never truly finished, and usually require massive time investments to achieve incremental progress with diminishing returns.

If a one-person company is going to build a product, it can’t have any of those huge time-sink features. At most, I can afford to have one or two components of moderate complexity, such as the HTML-to-body-text parser and the Kindle-format writer. But even those are barely worth the time that I put into them.

Top photo is by Nicholas Zurcher from Designing Interactions.


Apps off the approved vendor list

I ran across a year-old article I had bookmarked from GovTech entitled “Do Apps for Democracy and Other Contests Create Sustainable Applications?” ( via Justin Massa)

For the past two years, innovation contests have swept the country in a contagious craze, from Washington, D.C., to New York City, from San Francisco to Portland. Even first lady Michelle Obama got in on the action in March when she launched Apps for Healthy Kids as part of her campaign aimed to end childhood obesity within a generation.

In the age of Government 2.0, these catchy contests thrive due to a simple concept: To improve transparency, governments release hundreds of public-sector data sets, which developers then use to create Web-based applications. The best apps win big prizes. The public reaps the rewards of new apps that help them get around New York’s subway system or navigate historical sites in the nation’s capital.

On the surface, it seems like a win-win situation for all. But local buzz only lasts for so long, especially when a winning app doesn’t always lead to a long-term government contract.

…the contests let city officials advertise transparency efforts and collaborate with citizens to address local issues. But because applications submitted in the competitions don’t go through normal procurement channels, [Jay] Nath [manager of innovation for San Francisco] said, cities cannot use them as “official” apps. That means the shelf life of the winning app is left in the hands of the developers.

Just ask Brian Sobel, one of the three developers of the website iLive.at, where users can learn about a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., by plugging in an address. After winning the top individual prize for the district’s first Apps for Democracy contest, he remembers meeting the mayor and attending press conferences. But eventually the hoopla died down. And without any incentives to keep the data up-to-date, he said, the free site has “gone kind of stale.”

“We produced something, and we were part of this whole to-do,” he said. “That was great. But there was no next step, so we all went back to our gainfully employed ventures. They could have asked us to buy a next phase of the project, but they didn’t because they didn’t have the infrastructure set up for that.”

At the time, I left this note in Google Reader:

Are these contests done in concert with other initiatives (like CDBGs)? Are they engaging horizontally (community groups and social orgs) or just vertically (coders)? I’m at the periphery of the pubdata movement, but I fail to see broad engagement (tongue in cheek: as measured by nobody asking me about it)

Are these contests structured (do a funding round of engagement, then coding, then deployment and evaluation)? Do the contest questions/project descriptions talk about how the project was designed and the structure for which it will be completed or is the focus just on the final product? As someone who designs and evaluates capacity building grants, I’ve found greater success by scrutinizing the workplan more than the impact statement. Of course, overpromising and underfunding is no surprise in the social sector.


Lovingly reimagined, progressively remade

Chris Rabb’s Invisible Capital uses a quote from Robert Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West’s The Future of American Progressivism:

“To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America—this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes—needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.”


Belief-based design

Matt Webb posted “Inbox Hero” about a month back (via AJ):

Rand: The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about an email app built on a principle of Objectivism. At the moment, my email client defaults to doing nothing, and I must intervene to create action (ie, write a reply).

But if I had an Objectivist email app, it would automatically respond to all emails with stock enabling and forceful replies after a period of (say) 15 minutes, and I would have to intervene if I wanted it to not do that.

I shared it in Google Reader and Tom Wolf (who I’ve quoted before) replied:

This is a neat way to think about building applications. Rather than starting from “let’s solve a problem”, start from “given this solution, how should it behave assuming I hold X as my primary belief framework?” I’m not sure it’s a practical way to build apps for the masses, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless :)

And just in minor regards to Objectivism, I inadvertently dabbled in it when I was about 14 but fortunately quickly outgrew it.


Shirt sales, scraped daily

I am remiss to finally get around to blogging Day of the Shirt, which I launched back in October, 2010. It’s a straightforward and (hopefully) aesthetically-pleasing t-shirt aggregator.

What’s nifty about Day of the Shirt is that it’s built entirely with  PHP Simple HTML DOM Parser. And when I say entirely, I mean entirely: there is no database backend, everything is scraped, including itself. Day of the Shirt…

  1. scrapes t-shirt vendors to get names, links and thumbnails (which are cropped and cached);

  2. scrapes, parses and rewrites its own DOM when new shirts are added (we’re serving completely static html);

  3. and scrapes itself to compose its daily tweets.

That last step is a little extravagant, but I wanted to separate the early-morning website update from the mid-morning tweeting—otherwise only the early birds would ever see the tweet. Of course, I re-used the tweet-composing algorithm from Panlexicon.

Now the unfortunate part of this project was that I did a fair amount of competition research prior to building this website—but it wasn’t until about a week after I launched that I discovered an equivalent service: Tee MagnetC’est la vie.


Social Media Community Architect and Manager

Exploring the recesses of my email I came across some bad ideas I gave to a good friend, neighbor and excellent “Social Media Community Architect and Manager” as we were exploring possible resume headers for him:

If I were to take the best amalgamation of words, I would go with “Social Media Community Architect and Manager”—which is somewhat awkward. I think you want the words:

  1. social (which is the buzzword of online social networking);

  2. community (which is both online and offline and has a certain fuzziness to it); and

  3. something that describes the process of creation… and management.

I would shy clear of the word technology… “media” definitely has more hotness right now. Maybe “Social Media and Community Architect”.

What about “Social Media and Community Entrepreneur” (everyone loves an Entrepreneur and I would say you qualify more than anyone I know… though it is somewhat heartless)

I went through my contacts on LinkedIn and picked out some words/phrases they use to describe themselves:

  • Community Technologist
  • Online Community Manager
  • strategic planning for your online social network initiatives
  • Building and Executing Social Media Business Strategy
  • Rich Media Developer
  • Interactive Marketing Executive
  • Technology Coordinator
  • Community Architect
  • community & communications coordinator
  • New Media
  • hybrid social media
  • collaboration technology
  • listening technology
  • Emerging
  • Link Development
  • Interactive

I think he went with something sensible like “Community Alchemist”.


Apparently I'm nonprofitly conservative

It’s kind’ve funny how in some contexts I’m a shut-up-and-go radical and in others I’m a hold-your-horses conservative. In response to this article on the Nonprofiteer:

If institutions of higher learning want to maintain their tax-favored status, they should abolish legacy preferences. If they don’t—if they go on practicing white people’s affirmative action—they deserve to be knocked off the comfortable perch on which they now sit.

… I left this comment

I’m sympathetic to the overall sentiment, but I’m always worried when an organization’s activities are judged against an arbitrary measure of “nonprofitness”. The strength of the sector—hard fought over 150 years of legislation and case law—is the breadth of allowable activity. The danger of reform is codifying subjective and contemporary distaste as unlawful behavior, thus limiting the ability of truly transformative organizations to form or function. How might Howard University, for example, find egalitarian social benefit in favoring legacy students?

When an organization’s status as a “nonprofit” is the basis for allegations of hypocrisy I find that the outcome usually furthers the goals of those who wish to do away with the nonprofit sector by doing away with taxes entirely (and by extension their social and redistributive benefits). Which is not to dismiss all nonprofit reform (I am quite in support of transparency and reporting), but the real issue here is not “How can we get more poor kids into Harvard?” but “Harvard should not be your only or best option.”

And I agree with the response I received back from the Nonprofiteer—which goes to the strength of dialogue as tool for navigating between two extremes:

Fair point–and I may have overstated my own (so new?). I certainly am not part of the group you describe which opposes taxes–far from it. But the nonprofit community has long regarded itself as above criticism, and I think the portions of it which foster inequality should be called to account. Perhaps depriving those institutions of their nonprofit status is using a sledgehammer where a scalpel would be preferable–I’m certainly open to that possibility. But that there is an ailment to be addressed strikes me as indisputable.