In this article I’m going to look at what is meant by data and data collection, why it has a bad reputation and why it is impossible for organisations to truly organise, sustain accountability and build lasting relationships without collecting relevant and meaningful data.
What is data? As defined in the Oxford Dictionary: Data is facts and information.
Given that, it might seem surprising that data gets such a bad reputation in the press and commentariat, but this is likely because of the different approaches to collecting and utilising data, some of which are giving data as a whole a bad name.
What is big data? Why the bad rep?
The majority of criticism for data collection is more nuanced than suggesting that ‘all data is bad’—the real target is often big data. Big data is harder to define but is generally seen as an extremely large data set that may be analysed using technology (like algorithms) to reveal patterns and trends.
And it’s ultimately the practice of using big data acquired without consent from third parties to run algorithms and target specific messages that is maligned. For example, this can play out in the use of consumer data, such as from Experian, getting purchased by an organisation and appended to existing data that they have collected on an individual. This data might identify someone's income level and/or interests and make it possible to send them specific messaging or advertising that might be seen as relevant and enticing. As another example, there’s the case of Cambridge Analytica that collected data through a Facebook app and ‘harvested’ tens of millions of individuals’ facebook profiles without their consent in order to aid in profiling and messaging them.
As my colleague sets out in this piece on what is and isn’t true about data in NationBuilder, these are not services that are offered by NationBuilder. Instead we focus on helping customers to collect and apply what we call relational data.
What is relational data and why is it useful?
At NationBuilder we talk about relational data or smart data—data that is not just collected for the sake of collecting data, but real data that’s collected with consent and can inform direction and strategy and help improve how an organisation communicates with their audience and allow them to drive people to take action on the issues that matter the most to them. Ultimately it is more meaningful data that can help drive deeper relationships between organisations and their supporters.
As opposed to big data which is often collected without a user's consent or with their consent but then transferred to another party without their knowledge and then used for algorithm led data modelling to make assumptions about people in order to push messages to them.
We often talk about the ladder of engagement and how each supporter’s journey with your organization will look slightly different—where each person will have a slightly different journey and go at a different speed. But to move them along that ladder you’ll need to take their unique journey into consideration to make the right ask at the right time. By collecting and applying relational data, you can can identify what it is that excites your supporters and encourage them to take the actions they’ll feel most drawn to in their journey.
For example, if my organisation is a charity that is looking to raise money and also advocate for the protection of wildlife, it might have multiple initiatives and campaigns going on at any given time including a ‘save the trees’ campaign and a ‘save the Pandas’ campaign. By collecting data on which supporters care about trees and which care about Pandas we can make sure to drive them to the campaign that’ll resonate most. Furthermore, if we have data on their location we can invite them to local events or if we know how they’d like to be involved we can ask if they’d like to step up to host an event, take on a specific role, sign a petition or donate.. Our platform is built with this all of this in mind to put people at the centre and help you drive them to take action.
Why is this important for movement building and democracy?
As well as driving supporters to take action across a common cause, collecting meaningful data is really important from a democratic point of view and that of genuine organising. NationBuilder partners, Tectonica, recently published their five part framework of digital organising which defines organising as a spectrum, from broadcasting, to mobilising, to decentralised organising. They argue that in order to achieve full decentralised organising, an organisation should be using methods that let them become accountable to their activists. And to do so, an organisation must develop a clear understanding of which causes their supporters are most concerned about.
NationBuilder gives organisations a place to effectively manage this meaningful data to get a clear picture of what your supporters are concerned about and act accordingly. For example, rather than knowing that 40% of supporters are interested in climate change and 30% live in Europe, you can quickly see that 80% of European supporters care about climate change––making it that much easier to reach out to them with a custom ask.If an organisation is not asking their community what they care about or where they live (yes, that is data), then it becomes far more difficult to represent, serve or sell to them efficiently.
Looking at this from a democratic point of view, in order for our representatives to be fully accountable to us, they need to be proactively collecting data that will inform their decisions in order to appropriately represent their constituents. If a government were to announce a new policy and plough on regardless of dissenting feedback from press, focus groups, polling, constituents, and stakeholders,, that would suggest they are not doing an effective job of representing their people and they’d be, rightly, accused of burying their heads in the sand. They need to collect data about what people think about a policy and the effects it will have and then make decisions based on that information. What those decisions are won’t be clear cut, but the data has to be the starting point.
Owning your data - as an organisation and an individual
Another really important value that the NationBuilder software is built around is owning your own data.
How is this reflected in our software? Any organisation that has an account on NationBuilder has full access to and full ownership of their own data. Their self-contained database is theirs and theirs alone and not shared into a central repository and certainly not shared with or sold to other organisations. They also have the ability to export that data from their nation in different ways and tie it in with other systems using the open API.
It also means that the software is built on the principle that individuals own their own data that are shared with organisations, and they have the ability to update those as they see fit. Whether that’s by allowing people to update their own information via a public profile, subscribe to topics they are interested in via customisable ‘unsubscribe pages’ or use our suite of advanced privacy tools to create granular consents, access a download of all data that is held on them by a given organisation or request that data be deleted altogether.
This goes back to the central piece about using data to build relationships. By acquiring data through consent, and using it to communicate with people on a cadence that suits them and on a topic they want to hear about, you build trust with your supporters and that trust is the foundation for a more meaningful relationship.
In conclusion, collecting data does not need to be a bad practice—in fact, any organisation that is not collecting data to create meaningful relationships is probably not effectively listening to their supporters. Data can be a powerful tool for helping organisations become more representative and accountable. By giving individuals ownership of their own data, organisations can use this to build trust and strengthen relationships.