An Internet joke circulating right after the National Security Agency (NSA) privacy scandal broke went something like this: “I should apply for a job at NSA; they already have my résumé, cover letter, and references.”
We’re in the midst of an unprecedented privacy debate. New questions arise daily over what information should be kept private and what behaviors are legal for governments, corporations, and the general public.
As Jews, our cultural history makes us uniquely sensitive to the need for privacy. Being tracked at any level can stir up frightening associations; the times we have been watched, catalogued, and followed throughout the ages have typically resulted in our being harmed. But how should we respond to concerns over privacy today? It’s no longer just Jews who are being tracked, but every individual with any online or credit card footprint.
Data is the newest and largest asset class
According to the World Economic Forum, personal data (that is, personal information gleaned via digital means) is emerging as an economically valuable asset, so much so that it has been dubbed the “new oil.” To illustrate this very point, in April of 2014, Dutch artist Shawn Buckles auctioned off his personal data (medical records, emails, calendar, social media chats, etc.) for 350 euros.
Buckle’s turning over of his digital life, artistic statement or not, is a sign of what is already happening in the global marketplace on a less provocative scale. Every day, individuals barter their data for goods and services that they deem valuable. Using sophisticated technology tools, companies such as Facebook, Google, or Amazon, turn that data (e.g., who one’s friends and areas of interest) into coveted information for targeted marketing, sales, and advertising. The companies’ goals are to provide better and more tailored services to customers. As consumers, we benefit from greater corporate intelligence; our needs are catered to more effectively.
Within the private sector, the quid pro quo model appears to be working. Most of us appreciate having Netflix recommend an exciting new movie to us based on our previous selections. And Netflix customers have deemed it worth the cost of having their behavior tracked in order to have great entertainment. Although we may cry foul when we encounter Facebook encroaching on our privacy, few of us delete our Facebook accounts; the benefits of social connection, reinvigorated friendships with old classmates, and, admittedly, voyeuristic viewing into other people’s lives keep us engaged.
The importance of grassroots support
The nonprofit world, however, remains a challenging frontier for big data to break into. Just this year, inBloom, a nonprofit, big data platform providing individualized learning for public school children, made national headlines when it hung up its hat after a mere two years of existence. Funded with $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, inBloom sought to store children’s public school data points (test scores, behavior, performance on homework assignments, etc.) so that third-party educational technology software providers could (confidentially) access it and provide targeted learning opportunities for each child. For instance, John and Jane are both in the fourth grade; John struggles with multiplication, whereas Jane is adept at it. Their online curriculum provider gives John more multiplication homework problems to practice while Jane is given long division problems. This tool meets the talents and capacities of each student. But inBloom’s revolutionary idea was brought to its knees by privacy advocates who saw inBloom as the perfect bulls-eye at which to hurl slings and arrows about data security, even though experts agreed that inBloom’s privacy structures were far stronger than individual schools’ vulnerable databases.
What are the benefits of using customer data — and how can this data be properly handled — in the nonprofit sector? We recently completed a project with Southern Methodist University focused on increasing educational attainment among at-risk youth in West Dallas. As is the case with most inner-city neighborhoods, only 10 percent to 20 percent of children born in West Dallas ever graduate from high school — a figure that has not improved despite billions of investment dollars by government and private foundations. Part of the solution, we realized, was to track children’s interactions across all of the organizations in West Dallas — including pre-schools, schools, after-school programs, and social service agencies, each of which currently holds its own database. When we stitched those databases together, we could predict when children would drop out of their educational journey and thus prescribe appropriate interventions.
Here’s what happened: Dozens of direct service organizations collected consent forms from the parents of the children they served (this is a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act safeguard). Parents saw the value and potential benefits of the proposition. Allow us to access your child’s aggregate data set and we will leverage the system to maximize your child’s educational, hence, economic, future. Organizations understood that we would provide them with important knowledge about the longitudinal impact their programs had on children’s lives (critical in demonstrating impact to funders when applying for grants), as well as insights about which types of children their programs served well and which they failed to affect (providing critical feedback to improve their program or client selection processes).
A Jewish perspective
Jewish communities across North America have a leaky pipeline problem. Despite nearly every Jew touching Jewish life at some point in time, only 20 percent stay actively engaged. It’s a classic customer retention problem. We have convinced ourselves that many Jews just don’t care about their Jewish identity (not true, except for a small fraction of the community). But maybe the real problem is our failure to retain them as their interests, life stages, geographies, and friends change.
We need to work as a collective set of organizations to pool data, learn more about each individual Jew’s interests, and get smarter about providing people with the right opportunity at the right time. When the Jews wandered in the desert, they built the tabernacle with each Jew contributing: Some gave building materials or jewelry; others offered their talents. Together, they built the place in which God dwelled. Everyone contributed his or her own “signature” (a precursor to a digital signature, perhaps) so that everyone had a physical stake in the Jewish community.
GrapeVine is a new system designed to empower individual Jews through data transparency. Incubated by Measuring Success (now in the process of being absorbed by a new 501c3, the Fund for Big Data in Philanthropy), Grapevine uses data aggregation, targeted marketing, and predictive analytics to link the silos of Jewish life. It offers Jewish communities, and their leadership, opportunities to address some of the pivotal issues facing contemporary American Jewry. And this type of data aggregation and targeted marketing could provide information helpful to addressing the shifting Jewish landscape and the increasing Jewish disengagement.
In essence, this type of data bank would do for the Jews what Amazon has done for books and Groupon for online consumerism; it’s an intelligent recommendation engine that suggests events and opportunities based on a user’s personal preferences. Individuals can reinvigorate their Jewish engagement by having access to the right opportunities in the right place at the right time, whatever life stage they are in. So the traded asset here is: I allow GrapeVine to track my Jewish journey and they provide me with opportunities that match my interests.
As a result, Jewish organizations also benefit. They can place their programs in front of a wide audience of target participants and, most important, they can track their programs’ impact on their alumni’s long-term Jewish identity.
Though data privacy critics argue that this is invasive, GrapeVine is careful to keep individual Jews in the driver’s seat. Individuals can delete their profile, block receiving information from certain organizations, and decide which opportunities they are interested in and which organizations can contact them.
Both the Jewish community and the world are heading in a direction of empowered data sharing. Health records are the next step. Imagine a world where, with an individual’s permission, healthcare providers across specialties can see the full spectrum of one’s health history, tracking risks and providing the most holistic care possible. For that to happen, we’ll have to create a compelling trade: better health care in exchange for customer data. With all things, there are trade-offs. With data, though uncertainty and risks remain, I believe the benefits will outweigh the risks.email print