The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University today announced that Cori Zarek will take over as executive director.

Zarek is a lawyer and public interest technologist with deep experience in government, civil society, and the tech sector. She served as Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States, designed and led the Mozilla Foundation’s tech policy fellowship program, and has worked with non-governmental organizations including Code for America. She joined the Beeck Center in 2019 to expand the action-oriented research and project work using data and technology for greater impact. Zarek has also designed curriculum and mentored students as an adjunct professor since 2007 at various universities including Georgetown.

“The Beeck Center’s work is increasingly focused on using tools like data and technology to solve problems in our society and Cori is a known leader for this work,” said outgoing Beeck Center Executive Director Sonal Shah, who founded the Center nearly eight years ago. “We know she will continue growing the Center’s work in this space to reimagine how our institutions better serve people. I look forward to supporting the work as a member of the Beeck Center’s Advisory Board.”

 

New Executive Director Cori Zarek

In her role at the White House from 2013-17, Zarek rolled out policies and practices on open data, digital government, and open source software. Zarek has extensive non-profit leadership experience, and currently serves as President of the Board of Directors of the MuckRock Foundation, a nonprofit, collaborative news site in the U.S. that promotes transparency for an informed democracy. In 2020, she co-founded U.S. Digital Response which matches pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis. Previously, Zarek was President of the Board of Directors of the D.C. Open Government Coalition. Early in her career, she was a lawyer with the non-profit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. She has both a B.A. and J.D. from the University of Iowa, where she is a member of the Advisory Board to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“As tools like data, design, and technology continue to drive the way institutions operate, we have more opportunities to reimagine how those institutions solve problems and deliver better for society,” Zarek said. “The Beeck Center attracts fellows who want to use their data and tech skills to design new approaches that put people first and we train and teach students who are becoming the next leaders in the public interest tech community. This work is more important than ever and it is an honor to keep building on the incredible work Sonal has led.”

“The Beeck Center is a vibrant force of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Technology & Society and Cori has played a leading role in that cross-campus effort,” said Robert Groves, Georgetown University Provost. “Her leadership at the Beeck Center will continue to give students and faculty the hands-on opportunities to impact policy and practice in our institutions which is what they seek out in coming to Georgetown.”

After months of planning, Shah founded the Beeck Center in 2014 with a generous gift from Alberto and Olga Maria Beeck. She grew it into a leading center on campus for cross-collaboration and also co-founded Georgetown’s campus-wide Initiative on Technology & Society. Shah will continue her work as a professor at Georgetown and will continue advising the Tech & Society Initiative. She will also join the Beeck Center’s Advisory Board.

Founding Executive Director Sonal Shah

“The Center would not exist without Sonal and her dedication to building the Beeck Center and social impact. We are grateful that she will continue to be a part of the Center by joining the Advisory Board,” said Beeck Center Advisory Board Chairman Alberto Beeck. “Cori is an excellent leader and has the same qualities. We are excited that she will guide the Center to the next phase of growth while keeping students at the center of all that we do.”

Since 2014, the Beeck Center has served as a hub where both practitioners and students explore leading-edge ideas using tools like data and technology to drive toward better and more equitable practices in society. The more than 60 fellows, students, and staff at the Center lead projects ranging from increasing data capacity in state and local governments and community-based organizations, supporting and upskilling the public interest technology workforce, and establishing new approaches for digital identity or open source software in governments.

December 18, 2020 – By Emily Tavoulareas

Last month, I facilitated a conversation as part of the Beeck Center’s Ideas That Transform Series with colleagues working on a project to improve outcomes for older youth in the foster care system. While our discussion focused on their recent research which they have published today, I found myself thinking a lot about the approach they took to their research—combining a “discovery sprint” with design research—that led to a fundamental shift in both how they thought of the problem, but also the possibilities for solutions. Here I dig into some lessons that can be drawn from their experience, that might be applicable to solving problems in any context. 

The approach

The project was run by Think of Us, a small non-profit working to transform child welfare, to better understand how a product or process intervention might improve outcomes for youth as they age out of foster care. Bloom Works partnered on the execution. The project took place in less than 16 weeks (though not consecutive). They did a “discovery sprint” coupled with design research—two things that are relatively common in the technology arena. What this example demonstrates is how powerful this approach can be when applied to entirely non-technical problems.

What it boils down to is that this type of research… really puts people at the center. It brought that proximity not just to a product—but to, how is it that my humanity exists within this bureaucratic web of decisions that are affecting my life? 

– Sixto Cancel, Founder + CEO of Think of Us

What I find most compelling about this effort is that while they had a clear research question to begin with, what the team learned changed the way they saw the problem space at a fundamental level. So the project team adjusted their focus in-flight. Here are a few key lessons from their approach, that could be helpful to anyone endeavoring to do this type of work. 

Lesson 1/ Be open to going beyond your original research question.

The team started their research focused on identifying insights that were relevant to the product that Think Of Us set out to build. They quickly realized that what they were learning had implications that went far beyond that technology. What they were picking up on had the potential to change the entire equation at a fundamental level in a very real way. 

Although these may seem like things that are obvious–they weren’t… there were these “aha moments”—these epiphany moments. – Sixto Cancel 

Instead of confining themselves to their original research goal, the team gave themselves permission to allow the learning to drive where they took the work. The research plan was intentionally semi-structured—it meant that the team went into the sprint with a set of topics to guide interviews and observations, but allowed room to explore additional lines of inquiry as they arose. Had they been inflexible, they would have risked rooting the research in the wrong question and, as a result, identifying ineffective (or worst, harmful) solutions. 

Lesson 2/ The intervention will never be a system

As they began the research, the team considered the child welfare system overall as a part of the solution, and sought to find ways for the system to drive change. However, as Think of Us CEO Sixto Cancel said: 

 “… the biggest epiphany and pivot was understanding that no matter what, the intervention will never be a system… systems are cruel and people are kind… and that the *real* intervention is the human beings that are in the system. The system has a way of setting conditions that make it easier, or very hard, to be able to engage in those relationships.” 

The research allowed them to get beyond specific actions and experiences and understand the systemic conditions that were robbing young people from engaging in the very life-affirming relationships that can support their time in and out of foster care. 

child drawing on paper
To better understand the support systems that young people have as they age out of care, participants were asked to draw the people in their lives, then identify those they could trust or turn to for help. Credit Bloom Works

 

Lesson 3/ Commit to your goal, but be flexible on the process

“You always approach a project with a perfectly designed research plan, methods, recruitment techniques… and then you hit first contact with reality and it kind of unravels in a variety of ways.” – Sarah Fathallah, Independent Designer and Researcher for Bloom Works

The team adapted a great deal, and doing so unlocked significant insights. Their ability to stay focused on the goal but adjust their approach in flight enabled them to learn from their interviewees, go deep on their experiences, and uncover unspoken motivations and beliefs.

A perfect example of this was the team’s plan for recruitment. Originally, they planned to “snowball” (that’s when you interview one person and they introduce you to others) their way into interviewing youth’s supportive adults. But they quickly realized that young people didn’t *want* to introduce the people closest to them. While that required a new plan for interview outreach, it was also an insight in and of itself—youth were so protective of their close, trusted relationships that they refused to introduce them to the system. It was a transformative insight and completely changed how they thought about the problem space. 

In another example, the team needed to reframe workshop scenarios and questions in order to get participants to talk about what would best support them in their transition out of foster care in a way that didn’t just mimic how they were repeatedly told by the system to think about that transition. To do so, the team tasked them to list out the hopes and fears they have about growing up, then imagine the app that could alleviate those fears and make their hopes come true. This meant focusing on their strengths and resilience, and getting beyond the stories of loss and hardship that often define them. Something as simple as imagining an app can help make children’s dreams feel more realistic. 

Youth journal page listing "hopes" and "fears"
One of the participatory research workshop artifacts where one participant described the hopes and fears that they have as it relates to growing up and aging out of foster care. Credit Bloom Works

Lesson 4/ Trust the process 

“This work requires a different evolution of yourself, because you have to question every single thing you might think you know about a problem.” – Sixto Cancel

While it is true that this approach has transformative potential, it is also true that it’s extraordinarily messy. It’s a non-linear process that attempts to bring order to unstructured information, and requires comfort in (or at least tolerance of) ambiguity. As designers like to say—you have to “sit in the mess” and “trust the process.”

That “mess” is both tangible and intangible. In its physical form it is an explosion of sticky notes, quotes, sharpies, and laptops. In its emotional form it feels a bit like crushing doubt and anxiety: What are we doing here? How are we going to pull anything insightful out of this mess? How is **this** helping youth in any way? I really just don’t see where this is going. I personally still have moments like this every time I am neck-deep in synthesis. For those experiencing it for the first time and having to trust their partners leading the effort, the feeling is real and unnerving. But the reason we say “trust the process” is that it does have a way of getting where you need to gooften with unexpected outcomes. 

team members working on a whiteboard with notes on it
The synthesis process, also known as “the mess.” Here the team is bringing order to / making sense of their interviews in the field. Credit Bloom Works

Lesson 5/ Be mindful of your positionality

“We were aware that (1) we are strangers, (2) that we held more power, (3) that we were coming in pre-endorsed with whatever reputation the youth had of their agency, as we were introduced by them, so whether that was positive or negative, we were ascribed those values immediately.”  – Sarah Fathallah

conference table with sticky notes on top
Thoughtful preparation, including snacks and food, conveys care and attention that can help participants feel more comfortable from the start. Credit Bloom Works

One of the keys to effective interviews—of any kind, but especially in design research—is trust. This team was very thoughtful and intentional about their relationship to the youth they spoke to, considering questions like, “How do we gain trust? How do we make this relationship a little bit less extractive than it would usually be?”

This took them beyond the typical subject-researcher relationship, and aimed to make it more of a partnership. This meant giving participants a sense of agency by having them control components of the research process. This included opting out of activities, stopping at any time, skipping questions, and agreeing together on the agenda of a participatory workshop before diving in.

Another way the research team built trust with interviewees was to find ways to demonstrate respect—compensating them for their time and wisdom, and setting up an environment that feels comfortable and less formal by decorating and rearranging the space, having snacks and craft supplies, and dressing casually.

The ability to stay focused on what the team aimed to learn, and adjust along the way in pursuit of that understanding, made it possible to identify solutions that were both valuable and practical. 

Watch the full panel discussion with Sixto Cancel, Sarah Fathallah, Sarah Sullivan, and Emily Wright-Moore. See more from our Data + Digital Mini-Series

Emily Tavoulareas is a designer and a fellow at the Beeck Center. Follow her at @EmilyTav.

December 17, 2020 – By Erika Seth Davies

Read the full series: Part 1Part 2

While we launched the work with the belief in the significance of creating more equitable access to capital markets, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC communities compounded by the country’s racial reckoning in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubrey, dramatically amplified the urgency of this project. If nothing else, the past 6 months have revealed the system is unfortunately working as it was designed as reflected in policy and practices that create economic inequity disproportionately in communities of color. 

How bad do things need to get before we aggressively make changes? The data shows us that the performance of diverse managers is just as strong as firms predominantly owned by white men. We also know that structural barriers and implicit bias mitigate opportunities for diverse firms to gain access to compete. Throughout the series of blogs and webinars, I have covered the landscape and addressed ways of taking a systemic approach to moving the needle on increasing access to capital markets for BIPOC managers. 


Watch Erika’s conversation with Bert Feuss & AJ Hernandez on this issue

Now that the racism in the room is no longer hiding in plain sight, it is time to act and be accountable for shifting the policies and practices that have held an inequitable system in place for far too long.  

  • Be intentional about transformational change for racial equity. Taking the same approaches to decision making will result in more of the same outcomes. As an advocate for racial equity, I am pleased to work in solidarity with a group of BIPOC managers to craft and share the Due Diligence 2.0 Commitment to set new norms and challenge the oft-cited criteria and risk-assessment frameworks that keeps less than 1.5% of assets with diverse firms. To achieve a change in outcomes, decision makers in the ecosystem must be willing to make changes to their assumptions and processes for identifying, evaluating, and hiring managers.
  • Seek out, engage, and invest with BIPOC managers. Diverse managers do exist with the ideas, networks, and capacity to deliver strong performance and expand the universe of investment opportunities. With the presence of affinity groups in the financial services industry as well as the recently-released Diverse Manager Directory from Emerging Manager Monthly listing over 100 firms, it is simply no longer acceptable to claim ignorance of where to find diverse firms. 
  • Hold every firm accountable for advancing diversity, equity,, and inclusion in the investment management industry. As recently shared in the Wall Street Journal, Yale University with one of the largest university endowments at $31B has put the asset management industry on notice that diversity in the ranks matters to performance and future opportunity with the institution. With resources like the Diversity Metric Score released by Lenox Park, there are ways of measuring the relative impact of diversity beyond firm ownership and considering the essential components of inclusion at all levels in the industry. Without large-scale commitment to increasing the presence of racial and gender diversity as a basic expectation for generating performance, simple inertia will allow the industry to continue moving under its current conditions and widen the gap between access and opportunity.

Equitable access to capital markets for diverse-owned asset management firms requires consistent, informed, and intentional decision making that must begin now. An industry that relies on hard data can no longer ignore the numbers, and must create lasting, equitable solutions for all.

Erika Seth Davies is a Fellow in Fair Finance at the Beeck Center. Follow her on Twitter

December 17, 2020 – By Natalie Ward

At the Beeck Center, we use data to better target services, test different strategies, and scale what works with an understanding that data and technology alone is never the answer. The Beeck Center, in partnership with the International Network for Data on Impact and Government Outcomes (INDIGO), collaborated on the inaugural Hack-and-Learn event this fall that brought data practitioners from across the globe together to identify ways to share and work with data to demonstrate impact at scale. 

The INDIGO Hack-and-Learn operated on three different levels:

Community. A diverse group of peers all working toward building use cases for improved data sharing and governance in the social impact space. 

Systems. A collection of people, processes, and tools that maintain an open-source database, data dictionary, and data templates that enable new impact bond projects to share their data.

Data. Multiple master datasets containing information on social impact bonds and social investments to turn into insights and visualizations that display outcomes. 

The Hack-and-Learn brought together a community of peers with a shared interest in data and social outcomes. I got involved to help an initiative called The Skill Mill to leverage data on its social enterprise program to improve monitoring and evaluation of the outcomes and attract investors to their work. The Skill Mill works in the UK to keep young people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system from reoffending. We were tasked with helping investors see the value of social impact bonds (SIBs) as a new type of investment opportunity for social impact organizations like The Skill Mill. 

We used data and data visualizations to show outcomes for investors who want to support efforts to keep high-risk young people out of the criminal justice system. Through collaboration with the local and central government, social investors, and local employers, The Skill Mill aims to combine paid jobs with training and mentoring for high-risk youth giving them opportunity and purpose within their local communities and keeping them out of trouble. Currently, The Skill Mill is funded by a SIB backed by Big Issue Invest, the entity managing the bond and issuing payments to The Skill Mill. SIBs are pay-for-success models, meaning The Skill Mill gets paid for effectively and successfully preventing young people from reoffending.

Data visualization of investment plus technical assistance timeline
Screen capture of prototype data visualization created during Hack-and-Learn.

 

I dug into The Skill Mill data template to find answers to questions like: 

  • What key data points must we collect to evaluate the outcomes of SIBs?
  • Are the existing data definitions robust, clear, and concise for reporting?
  • How can data from project spreadsheets be transformed into visualizations showing an investor’s flow of money throughout the SIB?

By the conclusion of the Hack-and-Learn, our team identified how data from The Skill Mill project can be collected and interpreted to better display outcomes achieved through the program. The Skill Mill initiative has collected robust data on the 224 young people employed through the program who received wages, training, qualifications, and hands-on work experience over the 6 months they are enrolled. Through data collection, sharing, analysis, and visualization, social enterprises like The Skill Mill can communicate the outcomes of SIBs to investors. Incentivizing investors to consider innovative financing models such as SIBs is a powerful way to finance programs that are proven to make a strong impact within local communities. By providing investors with data on the results of pay-for-success programs, investors can make calculated data-driven decisions regarding how to invest capital within communities to make a lasting and effective impact. 

Exploring the SIB model and measuring outcomes-based approaches through data collection and analysis is a key component of reimagining social change. Coupling fair financial models with the power of data and technology has the potential to develop an entirely new data-driven ecosystem for impact investing. It is the role of social impact practitioners to determine what data should be collected and how to best monitor and evaluate the outcomes of social enterprise programs through analysis, visualization, and prototyping. When investors can leverage data and visualizations to view the flow of capital from funders to the community, the positive impacts of SIBs on the life of an individual becomes evident. 

The Beeck Center operates on the belief that we are stronger together and that building a collaborative environment is pivotal for achieving impact at scale. A core value at the Beeck Center is collaboration and the Hack-and-Learn event in partnership with Indigo allowed for the Center to increase collaboration on a new level through learning from more partners, talents, and experiences in the social impact space to identify innovative ways to leverage data for social good. 

 

Natalie Ward is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Masters of Science from Fordham University and is interested in how technology, data, and science can be used to improve social outcomes. She is currently seeking a full-time role on an innovative team. Connect with Natalie on Twitter or LinkedIn to learn more about her work. 

June 5, 2019 | Sheila Herrling

Earlier this year, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, delivered a message that rattled the financial world – “society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues” and if companies want to continue to receive investment from BlackRock they will need “a clear embodiment of your company’s purpose in your business model and corporate strategy.” This is the world’s largest asset management company — $6.5 trillion! — saying it sees the future. And that the companies of the future will be those that very intentionally embed social impact into their business operations.

These companies of the future will capture and keep the market because their CEOs and brands will be very clearly identified with a social value proposition and a social contract with their employees, their consumers and society writ large. Back to Larry Fink – “purpose is not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a company’s fundamental reason for being – what it does every day to create value for its stakeholders. Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them.”

So, for all you CEOs who claim profit is your purpose, I don’t see you winning the long game. You need a “Plan B”. “Plan B “is a benefit plan, a clearly articulated strategy through which your company will aim to drive social returns alongside financial ones. There are a host of innovative companies moving beyond traditional CSR programs and integrating the idea of corporate social impact directly into their business operations. And this change is paying dividends.

For those interested in devising a Plan B, consider a 4-step approach:

Step 1: Know the Playing Field. There are a variety of ways corporates can enter the social impact field. I like to think of it as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are companies that operate a traditional CSR unit; it is typically a corporate foundation that provides grant funding to a variety of good causes that may or may not be well related to the business line of the company. I’m not going to name you; you know who you are. On the other end of the spectrum are Benefit Corporations and Certified B Corporations (B Corps); B Corps are companies that meet the highest standards of verified social impact performance, transparency and accountability to balance profit and purpose. Patagonia, Natura, Laureate Education and Method are well-known B Corps; Cipla, Elvis & Kresse, Triodos Bank, and New Belgium Brewing and are less well-known, ought-to-be-known, examples of this class.

Between those ends of the spectrum, there are a number of different ways corporate CEO’s can enter the playing the field with a commitment to put the power of business to work in driving social impact at scale. Consider these options, as you seek to put your team on, and move up, the field:

Do no harm. Recognizing your company’s impact on people and the planet and actively doing something about managing any negative impact is a solid get-on-the-playing field move. For example, Microsoft, Adidas and Sony partnered with the United Nations on a commitment and campaign to urge other companies to measure their climate footprint, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and offset the remainder of their remissions. Or how about the power move (no pun intended) by Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods on his first day on the job issuing a blog committing to manage the dual challenge of meeting the needs of an increased demand for energy (Exxon Mobil’s business) while also mitigating climate change (he advocates for a uniform price of carbon applied consistently over the economy)?

Be a statesman. With diminished faith in politics and government, people are increasingly looking to CEOs to take public stances on major social policy issues and to use their power to shape the context for social impact. Customers increasingly want to understand the social impact of the products they buy and trust the person at the helm of the company they buy from. And employees want to work at companies with social values. Take a page from Dick’s Sporting Goods, the country’s largest sporting goods retailer, with 850 stores across the country.  CEO Edward Stack took a stand on assault rifle bans after the Parkland shooting and Dick’s not only stopped carrying assault rifles but also changed its minimum age for all gun sales to twenty-one. While earnings took a hit, it’s unclear what proportion was related to the policy change and Dick’s is blowing out its baseball line in response. Or a page from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff who, after discovering his female employees were paid less than their male counterparts, spent $6 million to close the gender-equity pay gap. And, most recently, the CEOs of seven women’s health companies who spoke out against the wave of state anti-abortion bills and challenged corporate America to join their campaign.

Invest in people and place. Each year, we have more proof points that embedding social impact into the business model drives profits. More evidence that consumers are willing to align their purchasing power with their social missions. Higher brand loyalty and employee retention rates in purpose-driven companies. Continued pressure by the Millennial workforce expecting their employers to advance society. And more attention paid to investing in underleveraged communities. Intentionality around investing in your workforce and the communities in which you work and serve become essential plays along the social impact spectrum. Costco, Ben & Jerry’s, and In-N-Out are among a group of companies that pay their workers a living wage  while debunking the myth that it hurts their bottom line. Levi Strauss’ Worker Wellbeing initiative provides financial literacy, health and education benefits to its factory workers around the world. And Whole Foods, as part of Detroit’s Future Cities Initiative, took a leap of faith putting a store in midtown, a green food desert, employed Detroiters and exceeded its two-year revenue projections in the first three months. And Northrop Grumman, recognizing the benefits of a more diverse, local employee base, partnered with the National Security Agency in launching the Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students (ACES) program at the University of Maryland. Fifty-three percent of enrolled students are women and forty percent are students of color. The program has benefitted UMD with retention rates over ninety percent, and built the depth and breadth of cybersecurity professionals Northrop Grumman needs to grow their business.

Innovate across the supply chain. Business performance and public opinion have driven most companies to understand and invest in strong, sustainable supply chain management. Not doing so puts most companies at great risk and doing it well will increasingly be required by customers, investors and regulators. MVPs can be found on the annual Gartner Supply Chain Top 25 list. Nike – once known more for its sweatshop practices – now makes the list regularly after seeing that an embedded workers’ rights impact strategy was a driver of productivity and profits. Mars is one of the longest playing teams committed to sustainable supply chain management – well before it became either a social movement or a business imperative. And Walmart deserves a shout-out for its intentionality to diversifying its supply chain through its Supplier Diversity Program that ensures that minority, woman, veteran, and LGBT-owned companies have equal access to supplier partnerships.

Acquire, merge with or invest in a benefit company. Acquisitions and mergers can onboard ideas and develop relationships in new spaces, paving the way for fuller integration of social impact into your core business operations. Campbell Soup Company acquired Bolthouse Farms, Plum Organics, Kelsen Group and Garden Fresh Gourmet, marking a shift in focus to ingredient transparency, healthier low-cost offerings and organic baby food. This values-based partnership proved to be a profitable one, with the largely untapped organic baby food market rapidly expanding. Danone’s strategy has led it to acquire companies in multiple new countries and markets, better aligning their products with their markets. In particular, Danone’s purchase of WhiteWave made Danone the world’s biggest producer of organic foods while also injecting plant-based nutrition products into to its other four global categories. “DanoneWave” went on to become the biggest public benefit corporation in the U.S.

If M&A is too far down the field, you could also consider creating a corporate fund that invests in social enterprises. This strategy can onboard new ideas, talent, and product lines. And can more strategically align your corporate giving with your business operations while also getting returns on that investment (yes, you can get financial returns through impact investing!). Patagonia’s Tin Shed Ventures leads the pack and is one of many components of Patagonia’s fully embedded social impact strategy. Shell Ventures, established in 1996, is one of the first corporate venture funds in the oil and gas industry. And if an on-balance sheet, operated-by-the corporation fund is a bridge too far, consider investing in a third-party fund. JPMorgan has used this tool in NatureVest (alongside the Nature Conservancy) and more recently in its Entrepreneurs of Color Fund.

Step 2: Study the competition. Now that you have a better understanding of the playing field, deepen your knowledge on where the other players are on the field. There are many more examples of companies embedding social impact into their business operations. Invest time and talent in learning how they are building and fielding their teams and whether their strategies are working. Find ways to gather alongside other CEOs who have already embarked on the journey or want to and don’t’ know how – Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, the Association of Corporate Citizenship Professionals, Fortune/Time Global Forum, and PathNorth to name a few. Or push the groups you’re already part of to add a corporate social impact track to its platform — I’m looking at you, Business Roundtable.

Step 3: Claim your turf. Decide what social impact strategy is right for your company; declare it publicly; measure it; and report it to your stakeholders just as you do your financial returns. The use of the term stakeholder here is important. It represents an intentional shift from a shareholder primacy approach that maximizes short-term profit and returns to an accountability structure that is responsive to a broader group of those who can affect or be affected by the achievement of the company’s objectives. CEOs become accountable not only to their shareholders but also to their employees, consumers and society writ large. My only real counsel here is to make it authentic. It’s too easy to see through PR gimmicks and insincere attempts.

Step 4: Go for extra points. The real gamechanger play is to fully embrace and one-hundred percent embed a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy into your business operation. Everything I would want to say is better articulated by Ryan Honeyman and Dr. Tiffany Jana in the B Corp Handbook Second Edition, summed up with this quote: “What I have learned over the past few years is that there is no such thing as a conversation about DEI and a separate conversation about business as a force for good. They are the same conversation. Siloing DEI into something separate is one of the main barriers facing our movement to create a more equitable society.“ It should be required reading for all CEOs. And if you want a ‘Hail Mary,” how about leading the charge to have corporates pay fair a tax burden, and stop the burden’s fall on individuals – this just could be the greatest gift to improving everyday people’s lives at a grand scale; revenue back into the system to invest in schools, healthcare and new business formation.

We are at an inflection point where the stakes are high to reimagine how capitalism and democracy work for everyone. Milton Friedman’s notion that the only social responsibility of business is to maximize profit is increasingly rejected by many, including investors, philanthropists, business leaders, policymakers, and perhaps most notably Millennials, who will represent the future workforce and consumers. People want to buy from, work for, invest in, and donate to companies that identify as social enterprises. Corporate CEOs stand poised to seize the greatest opportunity of their lifetime to deliver both greater financial returns and social returns at scale that could, quite literally, make the world a better, more equitable place.

 

May 22, 2019 | Lisa Hall and Jen Collins

This week more than 300 individuals from across the country gathered in Newark, NJ, to talk about investing in Opportunity Zones. The impressive day-long agenda included remarks from a New Jersey state senator and U.S. presidential candidate, three mayors, the governor of New Jersey, professional athletes, hip hop icons, and some of the wealthiest impact investors in the world along with a host of influencers and stakeholders from the traditional and impact investing communities.

We left, however, wondering when there would be less talk and more doing, along the lines of Antony Bugg Levine’s recent blog on how to break the logjam in impact investing. We also realize that long term impact and real outcomes take time and that the most successful investments in Opportunity Zones will involve unlikely partners and unusual alliances. We believe as Stephen Covey describes in his book on the topic, that relationships move at the speed of trust and that the corollary is also true — social change moves at the speed of relationships.

Much of the conversation at the 2019 Forbes Opportunity Zones Summit: Investing for Impact was self-congratulatory, centered on the great programs and new investment funds that have been launched in the past year since the passage of the Opportunity Zone legislation at the tail end of 2017. As most in the field of impact investing know by now, the legislation is designed to drive investment into low income neighborhoods through a deferral of taxes on capital gains. But as referenced many times during the event, Opportunity Zones are still in the warm up phase. Building upon the baseball analogy, we are not even in the first inning.

Convenings are crucial to spreading information and educating stakeholders about the benefits and challenges of this new tax incentive. In 2018, Beeck Center organized a number of meetings on Opportunity Zones including a convening with real estate investors, a forum on impact management to move towards a shared impact framework, and a training for community development agencies from all over the country. We are clearly big believers in the power of bringing people together to discuss and learn about important issues, like investment in communities that have not historically had access to capital.

As convenings go, the Forbes event was a good one. Many people noted a palpable buzz in the air and excitement around plans for revitalizing poor communities. Having attended our fair share of OZ convenings this year, we also noted with enthusiasm that the composition of panels reflected the inclusion that the industry often aspires to but more often than not, fails to achieve. The organizers, Forbes and the Economic Innovation Group, delivered on their intention to have an extremely diverse and inclusive audience. We found ourselves at every turn meeting social entrepreneurs like Vince Harris of Hoozip and community leaders from the local Newark community development scene like Aisha Glover of Newark Alliance, alongside billionaires like long time Newark booster Ray Chambers, and Sean Parker of Facebook and Spotify fame, all seeking to leverage the incentive.

Nonetheless, nearly 18 months have passed since the legislation was enacted and there are still far too few deals that have closed. Most of the organizations represented on stage have not yet closed on investments in Opportunity Zones. Prudential is a notable exception to this reality. In January, Prudential Financial’s Impact Investments group invested in a mixed-use, New Markets Tax Credit project known as Yard 56 in Baltimore, MD which will involve the development of more than 2.2. million square feet of real estate. Prudential is of course, not the only investor to have closed a deal in an Opportunity Zone, but transactions of any size remain few and far between, despite the announcement of dozens of new investment funds that are currently raising capital to invest in Opportunity Zones.

So we ask ourselves — what will it take to convert conversations into more action and actual investments? What will it take to create more doers? We suggest the following as a few ways for investors to start:

  1. Commit to impact. The enthusiasm around Opportunity Zones has led to numerous stakeholder conversations about the impact that investors can and will have in Opportunity Zones.  The Beeck Center in collaboration with the US Impact Investing Alliance has published a set of principles and a reporting framework for impact which can be applied to investing in Opportunity Zones. We have already seen adoption by foundations like Kresge who has incorporated these principles in their covenants for two deals for which they will provide guarantees. The State of California has also referenced the guidelines in their proposal which has now been introduced to conform their state capital gains treatment with the federal incentive. The Sorenson Impact Center also shared their adoption of the framework in their announcement of The Catalysts: Top Opportunity Zone Visionaries which will highlight the work of impact-oriented stakeholders.
  2. Identify and leverage ecosystem activities already underway. There are many national and local initiatives helping to identify investment opportunities in Opportunity Zones. Examples include the Governance Project, which has created a Municipal Tool Kit to help mayors attract investment to their towns and cities. Accelerator America and Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth announced a partnership at the Forbes Opportunity Zone Summit, which will support 50 cities in their efforts to attract Opportunity Zone investments. And on a local level, Opportunity Alabama is a stand alone non-profit focused on Opportunity Zones and paving the way for investors to evaluate potential investments statewide.
  3. Commit to standards with others who are aligned. It is critical for industry leaders to come together and set standards for impact and the field of impact investing. There are several groups that have already come together on a regular basis like the coalition formed by Economic Innovation Group and the working group initiated by Novogradac & Company, LLP. At the Beeck Center, we are bringing together a small group of investors who are exploring how they can adopt our Principles and Impact Framework. The Opportunity Zones Investor Council will also explore ways to drive impact, cultivate unlikely partnerships, and lift up best practices. Stay tuned for more details about this effort which will launch over the summer.
  4. Engage and partner with a diverse set of community stakeholders. Financially successful investments in Opportunity Zones will benefit from engagement with unlikely partners. Community engagement was mentioned countless times during the Forbes Opportunity Zone Summit. Since February 2018 Beeck Center has been hosting a working group of community development practitioners who are committed to generating positive net impact in Opportunity Zones. The group includes LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) and Enterprise Community Partners, both of which have extensive, longstanding relationships and investment experience in low-income communities through their work in Low Income Housing Tax Credits and grantmaking in communities across the nation. Furthermore, many community development stakeholders who have operated in and invested in Opportunity Zones for decades — anchor institutions like churches, universities and hospitals. Some of the most critical partners for investors may end up being Community Development Financial Institutions which have provided loans to businesses and real estate projects since 1993 and before. These trusted financial intermediaries have also successfully managed partnerships for New Markets Tax Credits in low income communities.

We believe there is no tradeoff in creating impact and generating a decent return in Opportunity Zones. Opportunity Zone legislation is a rare bipartisan idea in current divisive atmosphere on Capitol Hill. But community investing is still a world of both/and — not either/or. There does not need to be a tradeoff between creating impact and generating strong financial returns. Collaborative behavior will win. It’s time for capital to get off the sidelines. It’s time to stop talking and start doing.

By Sonal Shah

Government services touch our lives daily in countless ways — giving veterans access to healthcare, caring for children in foster programs, providing social security or medicare and even helping us get around using public transit. In an effort to improve those interactions and increase public trust, governments around the world are working to reimagine how they provide services in a digital age.

While early leaders in this work are already providing measurable outcomes showing cost savings and efficiencies, most governments are not equipped for this new way of working. To support government teams in this work, the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation is proud to launch the Digital Service Collaborative with support from The Rockefeller Foundation to provide expert support on delivering better results for society at scale.

The Digital Service Collaborative adds to the Beeck Center’s digital portfolio and joins a robust community of technology and society initiatives at Georgetown University. In addition to building a body of research around government digital services, the Digital Service Collaborative will also cultivate a community of practice for digital service leaders in government to share and scale efforts. The Collaborative will create tangible resources for practitioners and opportunities to explore policy considerations such as ethics and privacy. The Collaborative will also build on and support existing data and digital efforts at the Beeck Center, including ethical and responsible use of public and private data to address challenging problems such as health and education, and leveraging digital tools for better civic engagement with public institutions. Students will be an important part of this work, contributing to research and community-building, and learning about this emerging area of public service.

From Georgia to San Francisco, digital service teams are already focused on delivering high-quality services to their communities. And government officials continue to announce new initiatives, resources, and support for this type of work including in Connecticut, Maine, and California. Nationally, leaders across the U.S. government have made service delivery a priority throughout federal departments and agencies, as well as in the U.S. Digital Service and 18F. Some of this great work includes:

  • Making it easier for military veterans to apply for benefits by consolidating 1,000 separate websites and 950 telephone numbers so military veterans could more easily determine their eligibility for services;
  • Providing students and families better information on higher education including full costs, average loan amounts borrowed, and graduation rates;
  • Creating a people-based immigration process to help individuals and families understand and follow the naturalization process;
  • Helping people find affordable housing in San Francisco; and
  • Improving live-saving alerts for flooded roadways in Austin, Texas.

To carry out this work, the Beeck Center is assembling a world-class team at the leading edge of technology, data and society. We are excited to welcome Cori Zarek, a leader on government digital transformation, ethics, and technology policy, who has joined Beeck and Georgetown University as the Director of the Digital Service Collaborative. She will oversee the Collaborative and manage our efforts on data, technology, and society. Cori previously served as Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer under President Obama, leading digital and open government efforts across the federal government. Most recently, she was a Senior Fellow for technology policy at Mozilla and worked with Code for America to support the implementation of digital services in local government. Additionally, the Digital Service Collaborative welcomed Emily Tavoulareas as a fellow to lead user research on communities we hope to serve. With Christopher Wilson and Vandhana Ravi they will continue to build out the Digital Service Collaborative, including programming for students through seminars, pop-up workshops, analyst positions, and other efforts.

We have spoken to more than 100 leaders over the past few months to better understand the challenges governments face in providing digital services, and will use those key insights to develop an overarching strategy for our work. We will carry this work out in close collaboration with many others already working in this space, including organizations like Code for America and New America, academic centers like Digital HKS and other members of the Georgetown tech and society initiative, and, of course, government teams and people. We look forward to publicly sharing our learnings from those expert interviews and our plans for approaching this work.

The Digital Service Collaborative expands upon the Beeck Center’s existing data for social good efforts which includes Denice Ross who is building and supporting data collaboratives for social impact, including Census 2020, opioids, and disasters, and Natalie Evans Harris who is providing thought leadership and developing policy recommendations on new models of data ownership. It also builds on a growing body of work the Beeck Center has produced on better government delivery, including The Blockchain Ethical Design Framework, Architecture of Innovation, Accelerating the Sharing of Data Across Sectors, Funding for Results, Outcomes-based government and a Chief Data Officer Playbook with Deloitte, led by Hollie Russon-Gillman.

We are looking forward to working with our colleagues across digital service efforts to build out the network and global community to help accelerate progress. We will share more about the Digital Service Collaborative as the initiative continues to take shape in our newsletter — join our newsletter for updates and email us with suggestions for this work at beeckdsc@georgetown.edu.

November 19, 2018 | By Caprice Catalano

GU Impacts is one of the Beeck Center’s flagship programs. The GU Impacts Program is celebrating its 6th year with the Beeck Center and has allowed 121 students to participate in a wide variety of internships across 14 countries. The GU Impacts experience is one of a kind. Students have cited their GU Impacts Fellowship as a milestone that altered the trajectory of their personal, academic, and professional paths.

Take Camille Bangug, a senior in the School of Foreign Service majoring in International Politics and pursuing a certificate in International Development. Camille was a 2017 GU Impacts Fellow at El Nido Resorts in the Philippines the summer after her sophomore year.

Following GU Impacts, Camille was inspired to seek out other social impact opportunities, such as the Millennium Fellowship, which she currently leads at Georgetown. Camille also spoke on a panel at one of the Beeck Center’s latest conferences, Youth Impact. Finally, she attended the Vatican Youth Symposium in late October. We were able to speak with Camille prior to her departure for the Symposium to dive deeper into how her GU Impacts Fellowship shaped her life trajectory.

 

What motivated you to apply to GU Impacts at the time and what made you interested in working with El Nido Resorts?

Camille: During my education, I’ve spent a great deal of time figuring out how to make the most of my parents’ sacrifices, as well as of the privileges they’ve afforded me. I’ve always felt a strong call to serve. My parents are originally from the Philippines, so being able to orient this purpose in a place so important to my family was the perfect opportunity for me.

 

Did GU Impacts have any impact on your academic life? Was there anything that sparked your interest during your fellowship?

Camille: I’ve always had an inkling to work in international development — and GU Impacts solidified this decision. I decided to pursue a certificate in International Development entirely because of my GU Impacts experience. I saw the certificate as a way to learn about all of my interests, particularly those that didn’t intersect directly with my major.

Camille (middle) with other El Nido GU Impacts Fellows.

          

Could you share some more information on the Millennium Fellowship that you run on campus?

Camille: Under the guidance of Sam Vaghar, Executive Director of Millenium Campus Network, we were able to build a network of Millennium Fellows at Georgetown. The Fellowship convenes, challenges, and celebrates students advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are 530 Fellows at 30 campuses and their projects will advance all 17 SDGs and impact 310,000 people across 13 nations.

The Fellowship’s vision is to integrate the disjointed development conversation on campus. Many students are participating in research or small activities centered on the SDGs, but many of these efforts aren’t well known across campus. It’s been great to create an outlet where their work can be recognized and celebrated.

 

Have you seen a great intersection between GU Impacts and the Millennium Fellowship?

Camille: In both outlets, I learned that students have the capacity to do amazing things, regardless of age or experience. In fact, GU Impacts’ partner organizations originally wanted masters students, but undergraduate students were so effective that they began specifically asking for undergraduates. It’s been great to recognize that same potential in Millenium Fellows as well.

Camille with the Georgetown Millenium Fellow Network at the Beeck Center.

What were some insights you provided on the Youth Lens Panel at the Youth Impact Conference?

Camille: At the panel, I discussed the challenges students face in understanding what it means to work towards the SDGs. It is important to raise awareness for on-campus organizations like the Beeck Center that can help students learn about social impact opportunities. These organizations should also serve as formal advocates for students who want to get involved. It is important to create these channels because they can expand opportunities for students to engage with these issues early on.

 

Can you tell us about the Vatican Youth Symposium and what excites you about the opportunity?

Camille: The Vatican Youth Symposium gathers a diverse group of young people from different backgrounds and disciplines to work toward solutions to the world’s toughest challenges. It is important to remember that a lot of development work is driven by faith-based community organizations. At Georgetown, we constantly reflect upon our Jesuit values, so I am excited to see how the Vatican engages in this development conversation from a Catholic perspective — especially under the leadership of a Jesuit Papacy.

Camille with other youth leaders at the Vatican Youth Symposium (left) and speaking at the Symposium (right).

It appears that GU Impacts had a large impact on your time at Georgetown and the path you have paved for yourself. Why should other students pursue a GU Impacts Fellowship?

Camille: Everyone should apply. GU Impacts is interdisciplinary and it will teach you so much that other kinds of internships rarely can. GU Impacts influenced the trajectory of my life. I would not be pursuing any of these other opportunities if it were not for GU Impacts. It is not an opportunity for the faint-hearted, but the rewards of the experience are tenfold.

 

What advice would you give students interested in learning more about international development and social impact? How should they utilize the Beeck Center in this mission?

Camille: I would advise students to begin conversations with people working in this space and to simply ask more questions. Talking to these individuals is how you can translate an inkling or small passion into your full-time career. The Beeck Center is the perfect space for these conversations. Students can learn about opportunities that they may not know exist and they can also learn about different ways to drive impact.

Applications for Summer 2019 GU Impacts Fellowships will launch on November 26th and will close on January 14th. Contact Franchesca Rybar at franchesca.rybar@georgetown.edu with any questions.

September 7, 2018 | By Itay Weiss, Graduate Student Analyst

Many of our most celebrated institutions now face historically low levels of public trust. From colleges and universities to Congress itself, the institutions best poised to drive impact at scale appear out of touch with society and hamstrung by partisan divides. Researchers fear these conditions will cripple American democracy even further, as disillusionment leads to apathy — and in turn, to disengagement altogether. But if civic participation among our students is any indication, these researchers might not have much to worry about quite yet.

This past summer, high schoolers visited over 80 communities in 24 different states to advocate for safer gun laws. They took traditional approaches to civic engagement, like rallies, town-halls, and voter registration drives. But they also availed themselves of the best technology had to offer, using consumer-centered design to improve the ways the government serves its constituents. 

March For Our Lives, March 2018

On the one hand, take the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas. After an 800,000-strong March for Our Lives, they mobilized supporters to convene over 120 “Town Halls for Our Lives” across 34 states. Strategically, if members of Congress declined to participate, local organizers would invite their opponents to attend in their place. They even launched the “Road to Change” tour to mobilize their peers even further, this time with the goal of making sure that people are registered to vote and will vote for candidates who support stricter gun-laws.

Traditionally, town halls symbolize direct democracy, allowing constituents to engage their elected officials face-to-face. But the 21st century town hall, whether online or in person, comes with its own challenges. These gatherings have increasingly become forums for protest, with opinions and emotions often overpowering facts and expertise. And with little signal amid the noise, translating public conversation into meaningful policy solutions has proved challenging. It’s little wonder, then, that lobbyists exert as much influence as they do, curating pre-packaged legislation packed with one-sided views of private interests — and taking credit for doing so while they’re at it. The news cycle forces legislators to stay relevant and ready to respond, and these kinds of products help keep things moving. But at the end of the day we don’t need policy-based evidence stacked in favor of a privileged class. We need evidence-based policy that serves the needs of all Americans — and that’s where tech can play a vital role. 

Elected officials lack a sustained stream of objective expertise from a disinterested third party. The stand some of them take on guns, for example, is motivated by the same incentives that make them turn to lobbyist legislation: it’s accessible, supported by so-called experts, and will yield campaign contributions. Organized differently, means of civic participation like town halls can amplify the constituent experience and enable elected officials to better represent their constituents. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Arkansas, calls for the creation of a new platform independent of ad-buys that allows for evidence-based discussion. Along the way, he is also asking constituents simply to text him with questions and suggestions — allowing his team to easily collect information, identify key issues, and respond with meaningful reform. CrowdLaw similarly promotes online participation in lawmaking with 25 case studies detailing the best avenues for engagement. 

Notably, the Beeck Center recently hosted an inspiring young leader working in technology and governance — Chris Kuang. Chris and his team founded Coding it Forward, “a student-led 501(c)(3) nonprofit empowering computer science, data science, and design students to create social good by breaking down the barriers to entry in social impact spaces.” They offer the Civic Digital Fellowship, a first-of-its-kind internship for students aiming to use technology to reform practices in federal agencies. 

Looking to the leaders of March For Our Lives and Chris Kuang as examples, what would it take to implement similar reform at the legislative level — minimizing information asymmetries and improving constituent participation across the board? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so go ahead and comment to continue the conversation! 

Chris Kuang (second from right) visits the Beeck Center

This post is part of our Student Summer Series, which highlights the perspectives of students working at the Beeck Center as they engage and explore ways to scale social impact.

August 15, 2018 | By Eunice Jeong, Student Analyst, Georgetown University Class of 2020 

As educational centers serving students as well as larger communities and cities, universities hold great potential for advancing important discussions on modern social problems and the potential for strategies such as socially-conscious investing to help address these issues. Large schools around the world, often with endowments upwards of $1 billion, hold a unique position in the eyes of communities and the media. These schools are developing the next generation of social impact leaders – government officials, educators, and social entrepreneurs – and they have a significant opportunity to shape the future of socially-conscious investing. Through their own investment of endowment funds and the courses they offer to students and executives, universities can lead by example to promote impact investing and build the capacity of the next generation of leaders to do the same.

This summer, Cambridge University confirmed its divestment from companies in the fossil fuel sector as part of its new commitment to using part of its £3 billion endowment to address climate change. The Cambridge University Endowment Fund (CUEF) investment plan includes a comprehensive review of environmental impact funds, education for university leaders on the topic, the creation of a university Centre for a Carbon Neutral Future as a center for sustainable energy research and related policy discussions, and a commitment to complete carbon neutrality on campus by 2050.

Closer to home, Georgetown University’s board of directors announced in June 2015 that the university will no longer invest its endowment in companies whose principal business is mining coal for energy production. They came to the decision after mounting pressure from student and community groups such as GU Fossil Free, which set up pickets on campus demanding accountability from the Georgetown board and presented its proposal in multiple meetings with the board of directors and President DeGioia. In addition to this divestment, the university is committed to evaluating topics related to socially responsible investments and endowment management. While Georgetown’s financial disaffiliation from coal companies is not yet as extensive as Cambridge’s commitment to actively investing in sustainable energy options, divestment itself is an important first step in impact investing on a campus scale.

Socially-conscious investing is starting to catch on in similar ways in other schools as well. Many consider socially responsible decisions to be part of a university’s obligation to its students and larger community. As students and staff demand that school directors and advisory boards tackle relevant social issues, university commitments to impact investing are starting to become more common. Efforts in campus impact investing can be seen in the boards of other large universities across the country, such as Harvard, Brown, and Boston University. For Georgetown, addressing fossil fuel companies’ effect on climate change problems can be considered to be part of the Jesuit mission of the school – in an official statement, DeGioia remarked, “As a Catholic and Jesuit university, we are called to powerfully engage the world, human culture, and the environment – bringing to bear the intellectual and spiritual resources that our community is built upon…The work of understanding and responding to the demands of climate change is urgent and complex. It requires our most serious attention.”

In addition to promoting impact investing with their own endowments, schools can also provide opportunities for their students to learn about impact investing and tools to apply in their careers. This year, the University of Cape Town will launch its first course on impact investment for lawyers through its Graduate School of Business. The course will be convened by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Program convener Susan de Witt remarked, “Impact investment is growing at a rapid pace, both globally and in [South Africa], and as more international funding becomes available with demands for better social and environmental as well as financial returns, there will be a need for legal expertise to craft the kind of agreements and deals that will ensure these outcomes are realised.” Other universities should consider implementing similar programs so that students can learn to implement social impact investing practices in their future careers. This program is similar to other established programs such as the Social Impact MBA program at Boston University aimed to teach business management with a social impact mindset, aimed toward students interested in the nonprofit and social sector.

How else can schools promote impact investing for students outside the classroom? Socially conscious investing efforts can come directly from the student body in the form of student organizations like the Wharton Social Venture Fund – similar projects exist at the University of Michigan, Columbia University, and the University of California, Berkeley. Students interested in learning about the subject can create or join clubs like Net Impact, a student organization based off the national nonprofit which aims to support business-minded students in pursuing social and environmental impact causes. The organization has chapters in universities across the country. Schools can also host conferences and speaker events featuring impact investing experts and give students the opportunity to learn and network with leaders in the field.

Looking forward, university-sponsored impact investing, whether it’s directly through endowment investments, or indirectly through student education, has significant potential to make a difference in communities and in the next generation of leaders. Schools looking to follow in the footsteps of Cambridge, Georgetown, Wharton, and Cape Town must carefully analyze their priorities and the needs of the surrounding community so that the investments that they produce lead to real returns and social impact. In this way, universities today are in a position to leverage their significant power to create lasting social finance solutions and build the capacity of future leaders.

August 13, 2018 | By Rachel Wilder, Program Assistant 

Artificial intelligence for social good isn’t just hype. AI allows computer systems to perform tasks, like visual perception and decision making, that previously required human intelligence. Public and nonprofit sector leaders have an opportunity to increase their impact by applying AI to resource optimization and prediction problems outside the bounds of older methods: researchers and local government partners have used AI to better identify police officers at risk of adverse events like racial profiling or deadly use of force and to improve HIV awareness and testing rates among homeless youth. AI holds promise as a tool to approach a variety of social problems.

But in order for these benefits to be realized at scale, we need to overcome significant data infrastructure barriers. My brother, Bryan Wilder, is completing his PhD at the University of Southern California’s Center for AI in Society (CAIS). I found compelling overlap between the data needs that he and his advisor see and the Beeck Center’s work on data for social good. Three that stood out to me:

1. We need more high-quality data.

Despite the rapid expansion of public and private sector data collection, there often just isn’t enough data on the issues and people that AI for good can benefit most. For example, CAIS identifies many issues in public health (including outreach, disease tracking, and treatment decisions) that AI is well-positioned to address. However, public health data is especially scarce in the low-resource and developing country contexts where disease prevention could have the biggest impact. And as Gideon Rosenblatt and Abhishek Gupta recently commented in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, it isn’t enough that data is collected; datasets must be complete, accurate, and structured in order for machine learning systems to be developed.

2. We need to streamline data sharing across sectors.

Computer science researchers in academia have the energy and resources to apply AI to social problems, but they need access to data in order to do so. Even within interested social impact partner organizations, in-house data use restrictions can make the process of sharing with researchers prohibitively difficult.

A Beeck Center report published last year, “Accelerating the Sharing of Data Across Sectors to Advance the Common Good,” outlines a framework for governments and private companies to share data through a trusted intermediary with sensitivity to privacy and ethics concerns. This idea is echoed in discussion on the development of a “Data Commons” that would serve as a unified platform for data to be used in AI work. We should continue to push the conversation on getting data out of organizational silos and into the hands who can use it for good.

3. We need social sector leaders with data and technology literacy.

In order for governments and nonprofits to know that AI-driven solutions meet ethical considerations – including ensuring that racial and gender biases don’t influence results – there must be organizational leaders who can understand how algorithms arrived at recommendations or predictions.

Algorithmic bias is a serious and well-documented problem with AI, and it is especially important to uncover bias when working on social issues that affect groups already struggling with systemic bias. CAIS director Milind Tambe acknowledged that “[b]eing able to explain decisions an AI system has made to an end user is very important,” noting that “[i]n many cases, we are working with vulnerable communities and populations, and we need to ensure they will not be harmed.”

The Beeck Center and Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights have co-produced a playbook for Chief Data Officers in government that explicitly addresses this subject, giving data leaders a roadmap for understanding and managing algorithmic risks. Beeck Center researchers have also published a framework for ethical blockchain design that can serve as a template for ethical design in other technologies, including AI. This type of training for data officials in the public sector and implementers of new tech solutions will become increasingly important as AI becomes more common.  

The practice of addressing social good questions with artificial intelligence is young, and it’s exciting to me to envision how AI tools could amplify the impact of public programs if they are successfully applied at scale. Enabling that future will require investing in data collection, sharing, and literacy. My colleagues at the Beeck Center are working at the heart of advocacy and education efforts to make those investments a reality – so stay tuned!

This post is part of our Student Summer Series, which highlights the perspectives of students working at the Beeck Center as they engage and explore ways to scale social impact.

July 30, 2018 | By Caprice Catalano, Student Analyst, Georgetown University Class of 2020 

Impact investing is a hot and trending topic. In fact, during the past year, the estimated value of the impact investing sector has doubled, with assets under management rising to $228 billion. So, what exactly is impact investing? 

Before joining the Beeck Center as a summer student analyst, I was asking myself the same question. I was surprised to discover how little I knew about impact investing, given the massive amount of assets held in this sector and my undergraduate studies in finance in the business school. Over the past two years, I have been immersed in learning about stocks, bonds, and other financial investments. I learned to seek investments that provide the most “bang for your buck,” but I failed to consider the fact that an investment can do a whole lot more than generate profit. 

In addition to profit, financial investments have the power to achieve positive social and environmental impact. Impact investments are investments made in companies, organizations, and funds with this multi-faceted intention in mind. The Beeck Center has helped me realize the full potential of investments by providing me opportunities to participate in conversations on impact investing, such as at Alley’s Impact Investing Panel Discussion and Demo Night.

At this event, I engaged with individuals who live and breathe impact investing. The panel discussion consisted of venture capitalists who invest money into startups that produce positive social and environmental impact, along with strong financial returns. I also had the chance to speak with multiple social entrepreneurs. Unlike most business executives who use social impact to gain good publicity, social entrepreneurs consider catalyzing social change from the outset.

In the panel discussion, the venture capitalists provided great insights into the impact investing field. They commented on the upsurge in impact investing funds and the motivation behind it. Several panelists attributed the rise in funds to consumers’ desire for businesses to become more accountable, transparent, and action-oriented towards social problems.

The panelists moved on to challenge one of the major criticisms facing the impact investing field, which is the concern that impact funds do not generate robust returns. Hallie Noble, the head of Village Capital’s U.S. FinTech Practice, contested this criticism with the fact that 50 percent of venture funds do not even make their investment back. How can we disparage impact funds for not providing robust returns when essentially no venture capital makes a robust return?

An interesting conversation on identifying and measuring impact also emerged among panelists. One way that Village Capital strives to generate impact is by eliminating the bias present in venture capital funding access. The firm invests in entrepreneurs who might otherwise be overlooked by traditional early-stage investors. Venture capital cannot be restricted to white, male entrepreneurs from the Bay Area. These funds must be accessible to all entrepreneurs – with no prejudice against gender, race, socioeconomic status, or any other factor.

I had the pleasure of meeting a social entrepreneur who is directly challenging this funding bias. In 2015, Fonta Gilliam founded Sou Sou, a financial technology company, with the goal of helping female borrowers build their credit score, cash collateral, and financial acumen. The app is open to all users, but it was specifically designed with women and minorities in mind due to the harsh realities they face in obtaining finances. Women are two times more likely to be denied a loan at a bank and are four times less likely to receive venture capital funds. In 2017, only 2% of venture capital funds were given to women, with women of color receiving less than 1%. Gilliam, a woman of color herself, is defying these statistics and her app is working to inspire more women to break through this tough barrier.

Not only was Gilliam’s technology designed for women, but it was inspired by women. Sou Sou, both the name and the company itself, stems from the word, “susu.” Susu refers to an informal savings and loan tradition pioneered by women in West Africa. In this tradition, families and friends lent money to each other when receiving money from a bank was infeasible. Although this tradition began in West Africa, it is used all over the world under a variety of names.

Fonta Gilliam is just one of many individuals utilizing business to tackle social problems. Her work and pursuits demonstrate the importance in companies, investors, and consumers coming together to find investments that can unleash social change. Together, we must push businesses to shift from operating under a single bottom line to operating under a triple bottom line – one that considers the planet and people in addition to profit.  

In the short span of two months at the Beeck Center, my knowledge on impact investing has risen exponentially. I greatly encourage other finance-driven students or financial service professionals to seek out opportunities to learn about and engage in this fast-growing and important sector. Learn a way to get an even better and more meaningful bang for your buck.

This post is part of our Student Summer Series, which highlights the perspectives of students working at the Beeck Center as they engage and explore ways to scale social impact.

July 25, 2018 | By Eunice Jeong, Student Analyst, Georgetown University Class of 2020 

This May, the Beeck Center welcomed ten student analysts for the summer. Our 2018 summer cohort includes both undergraduate and graduate students competitively selected from Georgetown University and beyond, all of whom bring a diverse set of strengths, experiences, and cross-disciplinary backgrounds.

This summer represents an important transition phase and planning period for the Beeck Center, and the new summer students are making an important contribution to the implementation of new strategies. Matthew Fortier, the Beeck Center’s Director of Engagement, explains that, “our students are playing a key role in helping us move from a ‘start-up’ to a ‘scale-up’ strategy. They are contributing across all day-to-day operations of the Center as well as supporting major projects and providing strategic input.”

What exactly does that entail, from the students’ point of view? To answer that question, we all got together after the midway point of the summer to share our thoughts, experiences, and reflections on working at the Center.

What was your understanding of the work of the Beeck Center before you started? What first drew you toward working here?

“I was drawn to the unique startup atmosphere of Beeck Center.” – Junaid Masood (Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy ‘19)

“I think that much of the future of social impact lies in the areas of data, tech, and finance. So, this summer, I wanted to see how I could fit in the social impact sector by working somewhere that specializes in it.”  – Orunima Chakraborti (Georgetown University, College ‘20)

What are some of the projects you’re working on this summer?

“I’m helping with research and editing for a project on Designing a Public-Private Partnership to Deliver Social Outcomes in a New Zealand corrections facility, as well as assisting with the  creation of a comprehensive database of pay for success projects.” – Showroop Pokhrel (Georgetown University, College ‘20)

“I’m working on several projects this summer. Most of my time has been spent on a data for social good project, that uses machine learning to identify factors across all urban areas that are correlated with poverty decline. I’m also supporting work related to Opportunity Zones, executive education, and a new engagement related to government use of technology platforms to deliver better social outcomes.” – Will Denison (George Washington University, Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration ‘19)

“I’m designing outreach materials and coordinating with campus partners for upcoming Beeck Center events.” – Eunice Jeong (Georgetown University, School of Nursing and Health Studies ‘20)

What is something completely new you’ve learned by working here?

“As a student with a background in finance, it was really interesting to read about and do research on special topics that I didn’t get to learn about in my classes, such as impact investing and pay for success.” – Caprice Catalano (Georgetown University, McDonough School of Business ‘20)

“I came here with no prior experience in business or finance, and the work I’ve done so far has really taught me about the applications of those subjects in the social sector and government.” – Kevin Mersol-Barg (Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy ‘19)

“There are a lot of buzzwords constantly being thrown around at the Beeck Center [like “social innovation”, “outcomes financing”] that weren’t clear at first, but doing research and working on my projects has given me a solid understanding of their meanings and applications.” – Junaid Masood

“Nowadays, our society faces many challenges. In the past, private entities had one option to enable social change: Donate. Nowadays, new financial instruments, like Opportunity Zones, impact investing, and pay for success, allow us to do well financially, while doing good. – Itay Weiss (Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy ‘19)

How has working here been different from your past work experiences?

“Because of the flexible structure of the Beeck Center, we have opportunities to explore many areas of interest instead of focusing on one. I love both data analysis and communications, and here I am able to work in both.” – Rachel Wilder (University of Central Florida ‘18)

“We’re each entrusted with a variety of tasks which keep us busy, but at the same time the environment is really chill. The Beeck Center has really provided me with opportunities to express creativity in my work.” – Sudhanshu Sisodiya (Georgetown University, McDonough School of Business ‘20)

What have you found valuable about working here?

“Learning from the senior fellows and hearing about their work was really educational and helped contextualize the topics we’ve been researching. I also like that we’ve developed a good community with a mix of undergraduate and graduate students. ” – Kevin Mersol-Barg

“Working here gives us lots of opportunities to attend special conferences, speaker events, and networking events around DC where we can learn more about topics in social impact and innovation from experts and outside perspectives.” – Caprice Catalano

“The Beeck Center allows students the opportunity to take ownership of projects and see their contributions in a tangible way.” – Will Denison

What advice do you have for peers interested in working in the social impact scene or even at the Beeck Center?

“Since there’s a lot of flexibility and independence in this type of work, you have to learn to take initiative and reach out to your higher ups first. For example, the senior fellows are a great resource since they’re really open to talking and giving us new projects if we just ask.” – Showroop Pokhrel

“This field is very trendy right now and it plays for both sides. Do extensive research about the organization and make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into and who are you working for.” – Itay Weiss

Photo Credit: Austin Seaborn. Pictured: Back row, L-R: Junaid Masood, Will Denison, Showroop Pokhrel, Sudhanshu Sisodiya; Front row, L-R: Kevin Mersol-Barg, Orunima Chakraborti, Eunice Jeong, Caprice Catalano Not pictured: Rachel Wilder, Itay Weiss

 

“I have nothing to hide” is a tired justification that we can no longer use when it comes to our data privacy. I think we will find too late that the importance of privacy has nothing to do with compromising information on an individual level and everything to do with the information and power we have collectively given away.

June 4, 2018 | By Lara Fishbane, Research Assistant

On April 30, Anna Lauren Hoffmann published an article on Medium that outlines example after example of how the data collected on us is inconspicuously damaging any efforts we’re making toward a better, more equal society. Even as we tell women that they can be engineers, architects, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and presidents, Google Translate is subtly suggesting otherwise. As we march the streets demanding that it be understood that Black Lives Matter, Facebook is systematically failing to identify black men and women as people.

The dangers Hoffman points to are frightening and real. And the imperative for action in an increasingly hyperconnected and technology-enabled world is critical. How do we build a world where our algorithms are attentive to social consequences? And, perhaps even more important, how do we reach a world where data and technology solve for social inequality?

We can say again and again that what we need is more diversity in tech—and it’s true, we definitely do—but the problems in our algorithms will persist. Even a perfectly diverse group of engineers would inevitably be constrained by algorithms that learn from a world of biased outcomes. In other words, the problem remains that algorithms rely on data collected in a society of systemic oppression, bias, and inequity. Even a “neutral” algorithm cannot escape that fact.

Perhaps then the call is to eliminate categories such as race, gender, sexual preference, etc., from any automated decision-making processes. However, even without explicit groupings in our data, we still run the danger of perpetuating biases. For example, imagine a hiring algorithm employed by a company looking to fill a vacancy. Even if the algorithm is blind to names, addresses, race, and gender, it’s possible that the algorithm picks up details that correlate with these categories. A person may have attended a high school in a predominantly non-white neighborhood, may use adjectives or syntaxes that are native to certain cultural backgrounds, or have participated in affinity groups that correlate with social groups. Though these algorithms don’t consider race or gender, they will ultimately reproduce the same biases that already corrupt our hiring processes, while operating under the guise of neutrality.

And so, regardless of how little you think you have to hide, the collection of your data is dangerous. It allows companies to form the types of correlations that actively threaten social progress. Even if the data isn’t being used to make discriminatory hiring, loan, or credit decisions, the potential for harm is no less real. Think of Facebook, for example, who is using your data to improve your ad experience. Masked by the false pretense of an improved experience, the consequences of something so seemingly benign are worth being considered. Are we okay with a society in which men are more often shown advertisements for high-paying jobs than women? Or one in which Google searches for black-sounding names are associated with criminality? What about one in which low-income consumers are inundated with gambling-related advertisements? In aggregate, it’s impossible to say that these decisions about how our data is collected, stored, sold, and used don’t matter.

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation attempts to solve for some of these concerns around privacy and automated decisions. For example, Articles 13, 15, and 22 grant users the right to an explanation of how their personal data is being used to arrive at decisions. Recital 71 grants them the power to challenge that decision. The development of these articles is not insignificant and represents part of a larger conversation around taking “back” (did we ever have it?) control of our data and the usage of it. But it is likely to be limited — source code is too esoteric for lay people to understand, and a lay explanation might miss the complexity of how the algorithm is actually functioning. Further, even if the outputs are understood to be unfair, it seems unduly burdensome to shift the responsibility of challenging the decision to the end user. Marginalized and oppressed groups already often bear the brunt of needing to redress the injustices enacted upon them.

What’s really needed—and I am certainly not the first to suggest this—is a code of ethics around data and how it gets used in algorithms. Such a code should be underpinned by values of equity and fairness, and reflect the world we want to live in. Moreover, perhaps counterintuitively, it should be something that is less-well defined rather than more. A vagueness pushes companies to strive for better whereas hard lines are something to be reached and not exceeded. Further, there should be trusted third parties whose job it is to vet these algorithms and represent the rights of the end user.

This premise is not without its own challenges. Namely, the practicality of developing a code of ethics that adequately represents the rights of people, not those with vested interests; the creation of a new and fair marketplace for vetting and authenticating code; and the protection against the creation of perverse and dangerous incentives that may develop when third parties are paid to be the arbiters of fairness.

However, these are not sufficient reasons for inaction. Imperfect solutions that strive for something better through thoughtful and collaborative design are better than just letting our systems continue as is. It is our responsibility to not leave this one unresolved.

The data collected, released, and produced by the government has the potential to be leveraged for social good, but concerns about privacy and citizen’s rights are paramount.

May 1, 2018 | By Hollie Russon Gilman, Senior Fellow & Ali Shahbaz, Student Analyst

As the open data movement continues to evolve, the role of Chief Data Officers and institutional design matters for the implementation of data-driven governance and decision making. However, it is not enough to think about the supply side of public sector data. We also need to think about the demand side. There are a few core components of this, which include engaging with civil society, training the next generation of public servants, and effectively working to equip individual citizens with data privacy and rights.

Data is an asset for civil society and philanthropy, which can play an intermediary role, something that Lucy Bernholz calls “digital civil society.” Established initiatives such as the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth are already building the infrastructure for data philanthropy. However, especially in smaller organizations, there can be capacity issues to ensure that data is effectively used and deployed. Civil society and philanthropy can also play a role to ensure that there is a conversation surrounding the normative value and ethics behind which data is released and for what social purpose. This requires civil society working together to collectively build tools and resources that address data security, stewardship and access — as Josh Levy & Katie Gillum recently wrote in Stanford Social Innovation Review. Because so much seemingly private information can now be easily accessed, it is essential for social justice organizations to collaborate in order to ensure that one organization is not inadvertently jeopardizing other missions.

Second, in order for the public sector to effectively leverage data there needs to be training and a recognition within institutional structures that data is a catalyst for internal decision making as well a public asset for people, business, and society. Building an architecture of innovation, which we have written about at the Beeck Center, helps create a structure to ensure better institutional design between the core pillars of governance. There are serious legal and cultural challenges to effectively sharing data across agencies and different levels of government (e.g. state, local, and federal). In addition to modernizing software we also need to equip public servants with a range of skill sets, including upskilling current public servants with data and tech literacy training. San Francisco and Kansas City, in addition to the Department of Commerce, have already launched their own “Data Academy Programs.” Any of these initiatives also requires high-level political leadership and air time.

Finally, how can we make data an asset for citizens? There is enormous amount of value in the data that citizens hold and generate (both individually and through social networks). The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), scheduled to take effect in May 2018, demonstrates a path toward reliable online privacy balanced with transparency. The GDPR is the first legal bill of rights for personal data. One of the most exciting aspects of the GDPR is the concept of “data portability,” which empowers consumers to have a clear record of their personal data so that they can choose if and how they want their data to appear. GDPR also offers the “right to be forgotten” — if someone wants their data removed from an app or company, now it is a possibility. There is no doubt that regulatory instruments like the GDPR will be a milestone in standardizing best practices for data transparency, ownership, consent and sharing. However, there will be interesting questions about if and how the U.S. responds and what the role of other institutions will be to comply.

The data that people hold will continue to be extremely valuable. There may be opportunities for leveraging individual data for the public good, such as in the Human Genome project. However, its implementation requires an individual and institutional understanding of data usage, protection, sharing and integration. Throughout all these conversations it is essential that questions of equity, digital access, and digital literacy are placed front and center. Without the regulations to retain and protect people’s data, we run the risk of growing digital inequality in our already deeply unequal society.

Opening government data has the potential to build trust between citizens and the state while pushing for better public outcomes.

April 19, 2018 | By Madison Suh, Student Analyst

On April 9th, the Beeck Center, in partnership with the MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance, convened over 60 government and industry leaders at Georgetown University to discuss the relationship between data, trust, and governance. The center has been focused on the opportunity for leveraging data for social good, and was pleased to convene this event as the final in a three-part series on the future of open data.

Many governments have committed to open data policies and practices, yet there is a need for a more nuanced discussion on data governance. With this goal in mind, the center invited practitioners and leaders to join a dinner and policy discussion on how best to govern data and build trust.

One of the first questions guiding the April 9th conversation was whether the opening of government is an appropriate response to mitigate diminishing levels of trust between the citizen and the state. The panel launched into the discussion with a brief history on the evolution of open data. The open data movement began with the massive release of data into the public domain, where data had previously been largely unstructured and unmined. The first wave was the purposeful release and utilization of data in ways that benefitted citizens and built critical infrastructure. This development was followed by the mobilization of citizen feedback in response to governance structures and services. Finally, government has focused on how to respond to citizen feedback in order to deliver better outcomes; it is this domain that offers an avenue to build trust.

With trust in governance institutions at historic lows, governments need to prioritize closing the feedback loop between citizens and the state. As Christopher Wilson, Visiting Fellow at the Beeck Center, said, “there has to be a certain amount of trust that data is being interpreted in good faith and used for their intended purpose.” Panelists Sanjay Pradhan, CEO, Open Government Partnership; Beth Noveck, Professor, NYU Tandon School of Engineer; and William Eggers, Executive Director, Deloitte’s Center for Governance insights urged the audience to have hope in the power of data to restore citizen’s trust in government and offered examples, including: data prediction capabilities that impact policy decisions and resource allocation; the creation of data commons that prioritize transparency; and a government-sponsored platform for blended public and private data. Data pipelines could reduce friction between the private and public sectors, while customary experience principles could be applied to curate and visualize data in accessible ways, and untapped data sets could be used to further the development of products, services, and research.

Various themes emerged from the event, offering key insights and suggested approaches on data governance:

Shift Culture to Breed Trust

The panelists suggested that responsive and responsible use of data will drive an incremental culture shift in how data is governed and used to build trust. Data governance is essential at every step of the data life cycle. The transparency of processes — an honest assessment of both opportunities and challenges — is critical to foster institutional readiness and responsible stewardship of data. To build trust, there must be a cultural shift towards innovation and public entrepreneurship, with co-creation between the private and public sectors. However, panelists noted that shifting culture is “hand-to-hand combat,” particularly “where powerful elites benefit.” Building a climate of trust will require coordination between government and civil society and a balance of the risks and benefits of how data is collected, analyzed, and used.

Prepare for Future Obstacles

It was made clear from the discussion that the greatest promises for the future of data governance, if left unmoderated, could also pose some of the greatest risks and challenges. For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning, if left unchecked, could prompt ethical and normative challenges for the future of democracy, including privacy and cyber risks. Both individual risks (privacy, security, and personal safety) and organizational risks (confidentiality, liability, and intellectual property) are active concerns.

Engage Citizens As Participants

Above all, the panelists said, governance models should be citizen-centric, so that citizens are heard and responded to. The panelists stressed the importance of citizen participation and state response to foster and emphasize a trusting relationship. For example, participatory budgeting enables direct decision-making powers for citizens to influence policy outcomes within the government. This is a tool to build trust in government, as it has done in South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mobile phones and town halls were used to create a line item vote and increase citizen participation.

Rebuild Trust Collectively

According to one of the event’s participants, the open data movement requires a broader range of communication and analytical skills as well as the ability to assess the risks, benefits, and limitations of data usage, access, protection, and sharing. Multi-sector stakeholders, including industry, academia, and NGO’s, need to be part of this process to uphold standards.

One of the outputs of our three-dinner series with a group of multi-sector data leaders from across government, academia, civil society, and the private sector is a forthcoming Chief Data Officer playbook co-published by the Beeck Center and Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights. The publication focuses on a range of key aspects of the open data discourse, including the history and evolution of the role of Chief Data Officers in the government; the use of data as an asset for public policy; the translation of data into storytelling tools; and the evaluation of data ownership, sharing, privacy, and stewardship.

Ensuring the future of open data will require all actors to share a greater sense of accountability. In addition to the foundational principle of doing no harm, there is an inherent responsibility to do good.

For more information, visit www.beeckcenter.georgetown.edu or email us at beeckcenter@georgetown.edu.

 

With blockchain technology in its formative stage, developers and practitioners have an opportunity to set ground rules that will protect people and ensure an ethical approach to applications for social good.

March 15, 2018 | By Lara Fishbane, Research Assistant

On March 8th, the Beeck Center hosted a dinner for industry practitioners and policymakers to preview our forthcoming Blockchain Ethical Design Framework and to discuss actionable strategies for the responsible development and implementation of blockchain solutions for social impact. In an effort to move discussion on blockchain’s value beyond the current media cycles of hype and despair, we convened 50 leaders for a conversation about the technology’s ethical implications and how to advance approaches that link the design of blockchain to human outcomes.

Sonal Shah, executive director of the Beeck Center, opened the night with a reminder that this conversation is part of an important, broader conversation that society should be having now about data, technology, and ethics. As technology has become increasingly cheap, capable, and ubiquitous, its potential to enable solutions that benefit marginalized and underserved communities has also increased. Globally, organizations are calling for technology-based solutions that improve people’s lives. At the same time, we’re realizing that technology is not neutral. “Values are always embedded in technology,” Shah said. Blockchain is no exception.

Beeck Center Senior Fellow Cara LaPointe, who leads our Blockchain for Social Good effort, pointed out, “the technology is developing at a pace much faster than our ability to create governance around that technology.” As evidence, hundreds of blockchain for social good pilot projects are already in the works. Blockchain for Change, a startup in New York, is exploring blockchain’s potential for distributing services to the city’s homeless population, and a number of global organizations are leveraging the technology to help refugees access financial services. How solutions like these are designed and implemented will have real ethical consequences for people. With the technology in its formative stage, developers and practitioners have an opportunity to set the ground rules that will protect people before any ill effects are cemented into standards.

LaPointe highlighted blockchain’s key characteristics: transparency, trust, and immutability, noting that these are not just characteristics; they are also values. The system is set up with an underlying idea about how the technology, and, by extension, the world, should be: transparent, decentralized, secure, auditable. And this world offers new promise in terms of creating and delivering untapped social value. Panelist David Treat, Managing Director at Accenture, spoke to blockchain’s potential for creating new and decentralized identity systems as well as bringing value directly to small businesses and farmers. Katherine Foster, a blockchain specialist at the World Bank, added that it more broadly could be leveraged to meet development goals, through efforts such as the distribution of food aid.

However, parallel to blockchain’s unprecedented opportunities lie ethical challenges. Each value is coupled with risk. Immutability offers security, but it also means that potentially erroneous information is made permanent. Transparency offers access, but it also leaves open the chance of exploitation for vulnerable populations. Rules-based trust offers decentralized collaboration between many parties, but as the Chief Digital Officer of CARE Macon Phillips pointed out, certain protocols to achieve consensus between these parties require large amounts of energy that are dangerous to the environment. When asked what makes ethics so difficult to achieve, LaPointe explained, “it’s complicated because everything is interconnected.”

LaPointe emphasized that each choice, no matter how small, has huge ethical implications. People are using the technology for the good it can provide, but they should think about the ethical responsibilities that come with it. Panelist Natalie Evans Harris, Chief Operating Officer at BrightHive, underscored the need for an ethical approach, reminding us that blockchain is about data and “data is people.” Real people’s lives will be affected by any solution that blockchain enables. To ensure that blockchain solutions deliver social good for all, developers should be intentional about building in inclusion and equity to the design.

Panelist Rahul Chandran, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation, drove home the message, “I am unconvinced that blockchain is going to save humanity from itself. Without an ethical code, nothing will get to scale, we won’t get the partnerships together, and we also won’t try anything because we don’t get to experiment on people without ethical standards.”

The Beeck Center’s Ethical Design Framework is an actionable tool for the continued development of the technology for social good. While blockchain comes with inherent risks, that is not a reason to dismiss its potential social value. As Harris pointed out, “At some point, technology moves forward because it’s a benefit to individuals and society.” LaPointe added that if a technology can help people, it becomes an ethical obligation to use it. It’s important that it also be designed ethically and intentionally.

Proposed Guiding Principles for Opportunity Zones to Fuel an Inclusive Economy and Drive Social Impact

March 13, 2018 | By Lisa Hall, Senior Fellow

What if economic tax incentives designed to improve the place you call home don’t consider your needs? What if tax benefits, instead, focus on high-end projects that don’t require a federal tax subsidy to be successful, creating a new economic reality that feels far from the home you know.  Opportunity Zones are  a brand-new mechanism established by Congress, designed to drive private capital into distressed areas through deferred taxes on capital gains in the United States. How can these Zones and the Opportunity Funds which will invest in them be carefully constructed with the people who are living in underserved communities at the heart of decisions?

Place based strategies are commonly employed by community development practitioners and policymakers to achieve social impact. Opportunity Zones have the potential to enhance and bolster existing place based strategies that currently benefit low-income communities, including Promise Zones, New Markets Tax Credits and Choice Neighborhoods. Opportunity Zones also have the potential to do harm, as Ada Looney contends in his recent Brookings post. And Opportunity Zones, as emphasized in the recent article by Rachel M. Cohen in the Intercept, can sometimes have unintended consequences.

Consistent with our belief that economic policies should be implemented in a way that considers and serves the people in the communities affected, the Beeck Center for Social Impact at Georgetown University, in partnership with the Kresge Foundation, convened an expert group of community development practitioners to explore how Opportunity Zones can drive capital to communities in a way that truly benefits the individuals and families that currently live and work there. We asked ourselves a simple question:  How can Opportunity Zones be used as a tool for community development and not solely a tool for financial gains.

In response to this question, we drafted proposed guiding principles for the designation of Opportunity Zones. The principles are intended to serve as a starting place to help guide the designation process and, ultimately, the creation of Opportunity Funds that can best serve the people currently  living and working in these areas, which by definition in the statute, must be low-income census tracts. The following principles are presented as a straw-person for discussion. These principles are not meant to be prescriptive; but rather to engage conversation and embrace the opportunity for social impact.  We invite feedback by sending an e-mail to me at lisa.hall@georgetown.edu.  Comments will be collected and shared with the working group.


Proposed Guiding Principles for Opportunity Zones to Fuel an Inclusive Economy and Drive Social Impact

1. Recognizing that Opportunity Zones will deliver publicly funded tax incentives and subsidy to communities across the US, the state selection process should include as a key objective, the goal of delivering public benefit to a range of stakeholders, not limited solely to private investors, but also benefitting current residents of low-income communities, community development organizations, community service organizations, and social enterprises.

2. Where possible, Opportunity Zones, should be selected in combination with state tax incentives and allocations by states for other government programs that directly benefit low-income households and communities, such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and New Market Tax Credits. Benefits generated in Opportunity Zones should be additive to existing efforts and not cannibalize existing or prospective community development investments like those motivated by the Community Reinvestment Act.

3. Impact objectives for Opportunity Zones should be established and tracked, including but not limited to goals for raising the standard of living for current residents. Examples include output goals like number of new businesses created, living wage jobs created and affordable housing units. Outcome goals, like increased median household income and improvement in health statistics should also be considered.

4. States should adopt methodologies for selecting Opportunity Zones that are consistent with effective evaluation standards and best practices for research design to facilitate ongoing monitoring of zones, leveraging evaluation resources available from academic institutions.

5. The selection process for Opportunity Zones should consider the capacity of neighborhoods to absorb private capital and existing infrastructure needed to enable investments in businesses as well as real estate.  States should seek to integrate investments generated by the tax benefit to complement and leverage existing and prospective economic activities in designated Opportunity Zones.

6. Opportunity Zones should be selected with consideration given to environmental issues. States should encourage or mandate that businesses located in Opportunity Zones adhere to environmental best practices.

7. Efforts should be made to ensure that current residents of Opportunity Zones are able to remain in neighborhoods or can benefit from rising property values. Examples include state and local tax abatements for low-income homeowners.

8. A balance of rural and urban neighborhoods should be selected to diversify investment activity and to ensure that rural areas are eligible for investment. Opportunity Zones should be selected in a geographically targeted manner so there can be a sufficient investment of resources in each Opportunity Zones.

9. States should identify and support community development intermediaries, like CDFIs and community banks, that can provide debt financing to support businesses and real estate that will benefit from equity investments from Opportunity Funds.

10. In addition to prohibited business activities like gambling and liquor stores, states should discourage the creation of new businesses in Opportunity Zones which disadvantage low-income communities like payday lenders.


Speed is of the essence to put these principles into practice. Several groups including the Economic Innovation Group and The US Impact Investing Alliance have been advocating for and helping to craft what was originally known as the Investing in Opportunity Act. And many in the community development field and impact investing world have embraced the concept of Opportunity Zones and Opportunity Funds,  successfully incorporated with bi-partisan support into the  Tax Cuts and Job Acts  passed at the end of 2017.  State governments and territories have also embraced the new legislation and are already selecting Opportunity Zones, to comply with the legislative requirement that Governors designate low-income census tracts prior to a March 21, 2018 deadline. Some states have hit the ground running, launching websites to solicit input and comments on the designation process. Local and national non profit organizations including Enterprise Community Partners, Council on Development Finance Agencies, and LISC are supporting efforts to raise awareness about the program, providing resources and analysis of the legislation, and by engaging community development organizations in the state by state designation processes.

We believe this new tax benefit creates an opportunity to improve low-income communities in underserved rural and urban areas by attracting more private capital to finance small businesses, community services and social enterprises. But, if Opportunity Zones and Opportunity Funds are designed in ways that solely benefit activities and projects that do not need subsidy to succeed, including high end, real estate based projects, then the legislation will not meet its potential for delivering meaningful impact.  Opportunity Zones can and should create living wage jobs, improve community assets, and help build wealth for people in places that have not yet recovered from the global recession.

Check out Lisa Hall’s interview on KALW Local Public Radio!


Lisa Hall is a Senior Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, which engages global leaders to drive social change at scale.  She has dedicated her 25-year career to economic and social justice, impact investing and community development.  Lisa has served in executive roles across multiple sectors in the United States and abroad, including time as CEO at Calvert Impact Capital and Managing Director at Anthos Asset Management. Her area of focus at the Beeck Center is the inclusive economy, exploring how social innovation and access to opportunity can drive prosperity for all communities. She is active on Twitter @lisagreenhall

March 8, 2018 | By Cara LaPointe

Download the Blockchain Ethical Design Framework (PDF)

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Executive Summary

Blockchain technology can create scalable social impact and has the ability to change people’s lives. Emerging applications are demonstrating blockchain’s social value – from smart contracts that hold both parties to their agreements to transparent land registries to digital identities for refugees. The social effects of blockchain can be powerful and lasting. Hence, making intentional, ethical decisions in its design and implementation is critical to ensure the technology’s potential for transformative change.

Blockchain is a digital distributed ledger technology that has the potential to provide secure and immutable records of distributed and sequenced information or transactions. Blockchain does not require a central trust authority to verify information or authenticate transactions; rather, the rules are pre-written into code defining how actors can behave in the system. It is this unique combination of attributes – transparency, trust, and immutability of transactions – that makes blockchain technology appealing. Depending how it is designed, blockchain can also produce a wide range of actual consequences for people. The technology’s flexibility and extensibility, along with its immutability, transparency, and rules-based trust, demands a thoughtful, shared approach to its design and use.

The Beeck Center for Social Innovation + Impact at Georgetown University, as a learning partner with The Rockefeller Foundation, has developed the forthcoming Blockchain Ethical Design Framework as a tool for practitioners to drive ethical intentionality into the design of blockchain technology for social impact. We are interested in blockchains because, as a technology in its formative stage, it offers an opportunity to rethink how society can best leverage data and technology for social impact.

Ethical Design and Implementation

There are important, ethical considerations of blockchain’s design for human lives, especially for vulnerable and marginalized populations. Intentionality of design is critical, both as solutions are scaled and standards are established. Technology is never neutral; it affects people in both helpful and harmful ways. Values are always embedded in the technology, even when not overtly recognizable.

This is especially true of blockchain. For example, a digital identity system can provide an immutable and secure identity that is uniquely linked to a person’s biometrics, such as their fingerprints and iris scans, which could allow refugees, who have lost everything to cross a border, or access vital aid and medical services. However, how private, personal information is recorded on a blockchain and who has access to it could also expose refugees to exploitation now or in the future.

How the system is coded, who has access to it, and which rules govern it have intentional and unintentional consequences. Understanding the ethical impacts of each of these decisions matters. To ensure the best outcomes for individuals and communities, blockchains should be intentionally designed with people in mind and guided by an ethical approach. The framework walks through a conventional design process that has been expanded to focus explicitly on how to apply an intentional approach:

  • Define the problem being addressed and the desired outcomes
  • Explicitly identify the ethical approach
  • Assess the ecosystem of the desired outcome
  • Determine the guiding design philosophy
  • Determine if blockchain is an appropriate technology choice

Once blockchain is selected as an appropriate technology, the framework then moves iteratively through a detailed analysis of six root issues: governance, identity, verification/authentication, access, ownership of data, and security. At each stage, guiding questions serve to identify the effects of the design choices on the end users and communities.

  • How is governance created and maintained?
  • How is identity established?
  • How are inputs verified and transactions authenticated?
  • How is access defined, granted, and executed?
  • How is ownership of data defined, granted, and executed?
  • How is security set up and ensured?

Moving Ethics into Action

The promise of blockchain is real. Its key attributes of transparency, trust, and immutability have the potential to have real impact by increasing efficiency, security, and verifiability in the way that organizations operate, access to services is delivered, data is stored and controlled, and assets are tracked. However, the realization of this potential requires an ethical approach that recognizes the relationship between design and human outcomes.

As blockchain solutions are built and deployed, the Blockchain Ethical Design Framework provides a way to ensure that social value is protected. The diverse group of experts convened to inform this work need to continue to be at the forefront of efforts to bring ethics to action. As such, the Beeck Center is working with standards organizations and practitioners to integrate this framework within broader initiatives addressing digital inclusion and the ethical implementation of data and technology. From practitioners to policymakers, we all share the responsibility to continue the conversation and demand intentional ethical approaches in the design of data and technology for social good.

Download the Blockchain Ethical Design Framework (PDF).

For more information, visit www.beeckcenter.georgetown.edu, or email us at beeckcenter@georgetown.edu

Building the Democracy Stack

By Lorelei Kelly, Senior Fellow

22 March 2018

 

How do we strengthen trust in our democracy?  Here at the Beeck Center, we believe we can make significant progress on trust-building by helping Congress engage citizens differently.   Renewing our democratic institutions is imperative in the digital 21st century. Fortunately, metaphors exist that will help us imagine where we need to go.  

 

A technical stack consists of layers of components that build a system. Modern democracy requires its own components. What will our democracy stack look like?   We’re focussed on Congress because it is the most democratic of our federal governing institutions.  It is also the most powerful national legislature in the world. Congress is a complex and indirect representative system.  It is not a direct democracy, although it should be more responsive. It is already decentralized. As a political institution, it prioritize human relationships over technology.  This quality is why it must be the centerpiece for building trust in our democracy. That’s also why our first research theme is how Members of Congress are crowdsourcing expert capacity with constituents. If the challenge is trust building,  the goal is to build a democracy stack that optimizes relationships based on shared values. Sharing knowledge like technical expertise and finding new ways for thoughtful deliberation are good places to begin.

“Our social media is the digital equivalent of protesters shouting at buildings on the Mall,” said a House staffer when I asked how his office was using popular online platforms to connect with citizens.

Congress was set up to be the institutional mediator between citizens and the centralized federal government.  It is Article One  in the US Constitution because our Founders believed so strongly in this democratic function.  Today, American lawmaking should offer opportunities to include more voices. Increasing participation using technology and data is already happening in other democratic countries.   But our American legislature has been too under-capacity to fully take advantage of these trends.  From antique marble buildings that inhibit WIFI to it’s 1990’s technology attitude, Congress is a unique modernization challenge.   And, while we seek to update the institution, we must also find ways to integrate new ideas with its centuries old workflow and procedural rules. We will concentrate on two of Congress’ most important functions in this project–knowledge sharing and informed deliberation.  Both of these functions have decayed because they cannot compete in a volatile, 24 second news cycle that is dominated by loud campaign tactics and purchased access. Despite emotions running high, we must find ways to re-balance power among all three branches of the US Government. Presidential power consolidation–ongoing for decades–is a dangerous trend for any democracy.   

Stop sending me so much information. I know how to read the footnotes. I know how to use a search engine. What I don’t have is context for my district, expert judgment and the incentive to use facts.” Long-serving Chief of Staff in Congress

Building our democracy stack means we need to create competitive political constituencies around knowledge sharing and deliberation.  We must re-align the incentives of our elected leaders away from campaigning and back to democratic governing.  How do we expand the notion of democracy outside of elections? How do we re-invent convening so public events are safe and productive for members and citizens alike?  How do we give Members opportunities to explain tradeoffs and complex policy issues? How might regular citizens with special expertise organize themselves to be reliable policy resources?  Vitally, how to we make sure that civic data is used ethically and protected for social good purposes? The formal rules in Congress have slowly evolved to allow more transparency. The technical systems are incrementally improving.   We can now begin to pilot new democratic methods.

We can find hope for change by looking at recent history. Our democratic legislature was not always so bedraggled. Until 1995, the US Congress maintained a deep and extensive network of shared expertise. It operated one of the world’s premier scientific advisory bodies.  Before 1995, committee staffs were also larger and more often shared between the two political parties. Public hearings—a key bridge to citizen understanding—were more frequent. Whilst this former mutually-shared system stands in stark contrast to the one that exists today, it also offers encouragement that we can renew our democracy and bolster our shared future by harnessing the digital tools now at hand.

Together with constituents, individual Members of Congress will be a vital component of a trust-building democracy stack. Let’s start with the basics. What are the roles of a Member of Congress?  This list was compiled in 2004 by Congressman Lee Hamilton (IN ret.)

  • National legislator—working to pass the laws of our nation and determine spending levels for thousands of federal programs;
  • Local representative serving the priorities, interests, and economic needs of the constituents;
  • Constituent advocate for individuals groups, industries, and communities in the district;
  • Committee member, which requires developing specific expertise;
  • Investigator charged with oversight of the federal government;
  • Educator who can translate the work of Congress for constituents as well as the media;
  • Student of his or her constituents;
  • Local dignitary performing ceremonial functions at home and serving as ambassador from the nation’s capital;
  • Fundraiser in order to run for re-election;
  • Staff manager for anywhere between seventeen and eighty staffers in DC and at home;
  • Party leader in the party’s caucus; and, lastly;
  • Consensus builder both within and between parties

Each of these member responsibilities remains vital in today’s Congress, yet Members lack both the capacity and often the incentives to carry them out. And, trust between American citizens and their democratic institutions is rapidly diminishing, so the stack is falling apart.

We believe that there is a great deal of work already being done around the USA that contributes to a modern trust-building democracy stack.  Civic innovation and information sharing happens in local communities every day. This project seeks to reveal and celebrate this important work.  More, we hope to tap into these local networks in order to create modern capacity for a Member’s representative responsibilities. .

This blog post serves as an introduction to my research, supported by Democracy Fund.  Assisted by my colleagues Austin Seaborn and Itay Weiss, I work directly with Members of Congress in their home districts, outside of Washington, DC.

Although I do not know what our ultimate democracy stack will be,    I intend to make elements of a possible solution available on this blog over the coming months.  I will also post an interactive sister channel on Medium, so please follow me there.  Topics will include case studies from Congress, how technology and data can improve efficiency and inclusion, the role of local journalism,  maker spaces, innovation hubs, universities, state and local government. I’ll also look at new convening methods and examples from other contemporary democracies.

Modern data and technology tools can bolster our democracy with new possibilities.  Finding ways to be more inclusive while respecting the limits of an old and cautious institution is not easy, however.  We must start experimenting, because for this idea to succeed, we’ll need a cross-section of bright spots from around the USA.   Are you building part of a modern democracy stack in your community? Send me your ideas!

 

Note: This text has been updated. Please contact the author for the original.

January 29, 2018 | By Adam Neufeld

We’ve known for years that the federal flood insurance program encourages people to live in flood-prone areas—instead of moving to safer ground—all at taxpayer expense. Yet nothing significant has been changed with the program. Similarly, the most common program designed to reduce recidivism by domestic violence offenders has been shown to be ineffective. Yet, not only does the program persist, but dozens of states mandate its use, hindering experimentation with other more promising programs. Additionally, in 2015, undercover inspectors were able to carry 67 simulated bombs and weapons past TSA checkpoints. Two years later, inspectors did it again. The evidence and data were clear in these and many other cases, but government still did not shut down ineffective programs, switch to better models, or improve.

Efforts to make government more data-driven and evidence-based are gaining steam, whether it’s the effort to increase availability of key government data, data sharing by the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymakinggovernmental use of private sector datarandomized control trials, or analytical capacity within governments.

These are all worth-while efforts. But they are only valuable insofar as they lead to change, and the missing link in current efforts is a systematic focus on government’s ability to follow what the data and evidence suggest. A significant portion of evidence and data does end up resulting in change, but that fraction is far too small. The core problem is government is not built for change, and that includes changes based on evidence and data. To be sure, change is not easy for any organization. Employees may fear change, their incentives may be misaligned, or they may dismiss new evidence out of motivated reasoning.

But governments have additional obstacles to change, and it’s those obstacles that need to be directly and honestly explored and, to the extent possible, addressed.

The first obstacle is political. Concentrated, entrenched interests in preserving the status quo can often overcome the diffuse, future benefits of policy changes. The public might be irrationally invested in the governmental program or effort, such that governments may not want the backlash from following the evidence. Changes that require legislation must also compete against many other demands to get on the time-limited legislative agenda. The above are not amenable to easy solutions, although it is worth trying. For example, the Base Realignment and Closure process was a successful effort to overcome concentrated interests in converting data (the United States had more military installations than it needed) into action (closing unnecessary facilities based on security and military requirements). Congress passed a law establishing an independent commission to investigate and recommend bases for closure. The law required that members of Congress vote for or against the recommendations as a full package, thus changing the calculus for many lawmakers and resulting in far more action than would have been likely with piecemeal votes.

The second obstacle is operational. Well-meaning laws, policies and practices interfere with agencies’ ability to administratively follow evidence. Employee protections prevent or at least slow the ability to reassign or terminate employees based on evidence-based need. Congress often provides budgets that make it hard to move money from one program to another based on evidence. Tweaking a regulation to address an unintended consequence or new piece of evidence generally must follow the same long process as creating a whole new regulation. But we have seen efforts to address these operational obstacles, from Congress providing pilot authorities or more flexibility in allocating money to limited exemptions from certain governmentwide rules.

At root, governments are not set up to easily integrate evidence and data, let alone for the ongoing trial-and-error experimentation and continuous improvement seen in high-performing companies. Making more data available and increasing the amount of evidence on government performance is great, but much of the value of these efforts will be for naught if inertia wins out. In order to ensure these efforts bear fruit, we must revisit some of the core operations of how government works. This will not be easy. Some ways of making it easier for government to adapt to evidence might also create flexibility for ill-intentioned officials to use for ulterior purposes. However, we must thoughtfully reset the balance. With every new piece of data and evidence, the gap between what our government is and what it should be will grow. And government’s functions are simply too important for that to continue.

Adam Neufeld is a senior fellow at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Policy and Law and the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation. He previously served as deputy administrator of the General Services Administration.

This content was originally published by Government Executive.

January 22, 2018 | By Lara Fishbane

The more momentum blockchain has gained in the social good space, the more eager pundits have been to question the very ground it stands on. Blockchain has, time and time again, been labeled a technology solution looking for a problem to solve.

What I’ve always found interesting about these claims, though, is that blockchain was developed to solve a particular problem: trust. Satoshi Nakamoto’s original whitepaper outlines the dangers of over- and misplaced trust in financial institutions before introducing the electronic payment system that eliminates the need for it. The idea is that if people are able to transact directly, they do not need to rely on potentially corrupt and costly intermediaries.

After all, intermediaries are themselves an imperfect solution to the trust problem. The fundamental issue is that people, who do not necessarily trust each other, want to transact in a way that protects both of them. And so rules are established to ensure honesty and, consequently, protection: be who you say you are, send what you say you will, do not send what you are not in possession of. The problem is that humans, in practice, stray from rules. The intermediary steps in to create systems and repercussions that dissuade noncompliance.

But what happens when the intermediary strays? When, in fact, intermediaries are just groups of people who are as likely to veer from the rules as the rest of us? When, in fact, they are an opaque structure that profits off of our dependence on them? Enter Bitcoin. The perfect intermediary. Code that is open source and transparent. Code that is, by nature, disinterested in profiting off of us. Code that acts predictably and cannot stray. Code that makes it so we cannot stray, cannot go back on our word (immutable), and can see what everyone else is doing (transparent).

All of this makes Bitcoin exciting. People see an immutable, secure public ledger that everyone can trust and the potential for good seems boundless. Just think of all the potential for data integrity and storage! But there is a clumsiness here, a misconception. The bitcoin blockchain isn’t fundamentally about data storage; it’s about how people transact. The ledger and all of its characteristics just create a system whereby people can only transact in ways that are truthful. There is no way for bad data to enter the system and no way to corrupt it.

And yet, there is something truly compelling about blockchain technology’s potential beyond Bitcoin. An immutable ledger introduces the possibilities in the social sector such as secure land records in communities with no formal claims to land, an identity system for those who have been denied by financial institutions, and so many other applications. But unlike Bitcoin, these blockchains are not truth machines. There is no magical mechanism that prevents false property titles, fraudulent identity claims, or incorrect provenance information from being added to the immutable ledger.

Absent a truth mechanism, an intermediary is likely still needed to vet and authenticate information. It is once again the intermediary’s job to ensure that the information can be trusted. Here it might seem that blockchain leaves us off where we began, once again dependent on a potentially corrupt intermediary. However, what blockchain technology can do is decrease the likelihood of an intermediary acting in corrupt ways while also increasing the agency of the end user. This potential comes down to the design of the blockchain.

Immutability can prevent an intermediary from corrupting information on the system and transparency can be used to trace the passage of information. Though immutability and transparency may seem like design flaws in a system that handles personal information, the system can also be designed to protect and empower users. There can be a redress process that protects user interest and transparency of metadata, rather than compromising potentially sensitive information.

What blockchain really introduces is the opportunity for a power shift. It can give users tools to trust the intermediary so they do not have to do so blindly. It can also distribute the power of any one intermediary through a multi-actor system, and give users ultimate control over their own data and how it’s used. The design of the blockchain can open the potential for a transformative paradigm shift.

However, there is also the danger that blockchain technology opens users to new risks and might put them at the hands of a more opaque and corrupt system. Hence, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation is working to develop an actionable framework for mitigating these privacy and ethical concerns through design choices. We want to ensure that the decision makers in the blockchain space have a toolset for driving social good with this promising technology while reducing harm to the user.