How open-source software can help nonprofits achieve their data equity goals

By making software development more accessible, open source and low code platforms help nonprofits achieve true data equity to further their causes.

The world’s four biggest technology companies – Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon – are all headquartered in the US and have a combined value exceeding $7 trillion. That’s far in excess of the entire GDP of Japan, the world’s third largest economy.

With the world in the midst of a digital revolution, and the future heavily orientated around data, the immense and wholly disproportionate economic gains of the largest technology companies highlight the growing global problem of data inequity.

We live in a time where, largely regardless of where we live in the world, our personal data is ultimately under the control of US technology giants and, by extension, US jurisdiction. Their business models have become strongly reliant on collecting personal data from people all over the world and exploiting it for targeted advertising. To make matters worse, and in spite of new regulations like GDPR and CCPA, they’ve often done so without informed consent as well. At the same time, the sheer volume of data these companies have has brought not only massive profit gains, but also heralded in a new era of surveillance capitalism.

For NGOs and nonprofits, data equity is emerging as an essential consideration. After all, they face constant pressure to adopt more transparent practices to earn the continued support of their volunteers and donors and to better serve their beneficiaries. To do that, they must not only practice what they preach, but also understand the implications of data inequity in an increasingly technology-focused world.

What is data equity, and why does it matter to nonprofits?

The main source of data inequity is the fact that the communities and citizens who’ve had their data collected for the purpose of generating profits have themselves accrued no benefits. For the most part, it has always been a one-way relationship; a business model in which only one side wins. Data equity presents a solution to this inequality, in which the value created by data is distributed equitably.

From a broader perspective, data equity is a growing movement concerning more responsible data work. This encompasses a huge range of use cases too, such as data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning models, and data visualization. To that end, data equity may also refer to a set of best practices, principles, frameworks, and industry regulations intended to guide those who work with data. To that end, data equity is both a process and an outcome.

Most NGOs and nonprofits exist to serve the needs of people and communities and, since the lines between people and data are getting blurrier, it stands to reason that they need to think about data equity. Practically every facet of modern life involves digital technology and data-driven decision-making. For example, financial institutions use data-driven automation to help them decide who to grant a loan to.

While nonprofits can also benefit from data and automation to streamline routine operations, such as donor management and volunteer scheduling, it’s imperative that they consider data equity when developing and implementing digital solutions. For example, those who build the algorithmic models and related tools that are used to make decisions that have a real-world impact on peoples’ lives are people themselves. Absolutely all people have innate biases and those biases inevitably end up being baked into the data systems they build. That’s why all data related to people must be approached through the lens of equity and ethics.

Data is undeniably powerful and like any resource, it can be exploited for good or for bad. To further their missions, NGOs and nonprofits must pay close attention to data equity to avoid data creating and perpetuating an undesirable power dynamic that runs counter to their vision and values. Data, being a form of knowledge, can easily end up creating imbalances, which is why, just like businesses, nonprofits need to start asking themselves questions like:

  • Why do we need to collect this data?
  • Who is responsible for collecting this data?
  • Who will be the end user of this data?
  • Who (or what) will this data be in service to?
  • What is the dynamic between the data collector and the data subject?

Data privacy and equity are every bit as important for NGOs and nonprofits as they are for for-profit organizations. That’s why these questions and concerns must be addressed throughout the entire data lifecycle. To ensure they can meet their data equity and ethics goals, nonprofits must have visibility and control over their entire software stacks, without being beholden to the major technology vendors.

What open-source software means to the future of data equity

Building a foundation for data equity naturally requires shifting away from an entirely closed-source ecosystem which, more often than not, is entirely governed by a major tech giant. Open source shifts the balance of power back to smaller companies and, by extension, individuals. It’s also free to use and modify and call your own, depending on the exact license. These traits make open-source software the natural fit for nonprofits, especially those who want to advance data equity.

Although open-source projects vary widely in scope, they’re inherently more equitable, simply because anyone can get involved in development. As such, they’re a natural environment in which equality, diversity, and inclusion can thrive and one that’s not biased towards using data to generate profits. The same can also apply to open data, which refers to any data set that’s free to use, reuse, and distribute.

To give an example of the great potential of open source for nonprofits and NGOs, consider how a lot of smaller nonprofits rely heavily on social media for building relationships with their donors, volunteers, and beneficiaries. While the sheer size and reach of social media certainly makes it a tempting proposition, many social platforms use fundraising initiatives for their own ends. They’re designed to capture and use your donor data to grow their own advertising networks. Not only is this entirely contrary to the spirit of data ethics and equity – especially in the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2013 – it has become so controversial that it’s making a lot of donors rethink which causes they donate to.

Therein lies the overarching reason why independent, open-source projects are naturally a far better fit for nonprofits. Instead of relying heavily on social media and other, generally closed-source environments backed exclusively by major tech companies, open-source gives you the opportunity to build something better – something that truly aligns with your vision and values.

Building a data equity framework with low-code software development

Open source is intrinsically positioned to foster diversity thanks to the power of communities and collective work and knowledge. The reality, however, is somewhat counterintuitive. Many open-source projects actually suffer from a diversity and equality problem because they depend solely on the volunteer work of their maintainers. For many people, free time is a rare commodity, not to mention the fact that professional software development skills are spread thin.

To address this challenge, it’s vital that we overcome the barriers to entry. In other words, the more people and communities that can get involved in software development and data equity, the better. Low-code development platforms (LCDPs) are helping drive the democratization of software development, while open-source licensing models eliminate reliance on the world’s biggest tech vendors. As such, when the two combine, nonprofits and NGOs can benefit from a more flexible, equitable, and accessible technology stack.

Planet Crust is the principle creator behind the Corteza open-source low-code development platform. We provide training, support, hosting, and consulting services to NGOs seeking to leverage modern digital solutions to further their missions. Try Corteza on-premises or in the cloud today.

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