Everyday, information permeates most aspects of our lives. Rapid advances in technology and our resulting ability to collect and share information takes place at a scale that was hard to imagine, even ten years ago. For many of us, this information explosion results in a “love-hate” relationship that oscillates between invigorating and overwhelming depending on the moment.
The Economist’s recent special issue report “Data, data everywhere” reflects on how, in our information-centered economy, various forms of data have become the new raw material of business in the industrial data revolution we find ourselves in. While other industries continue to struggle during this down economy, the data management and analytics industry flourishes; currently estimated to be worth more than $100 billion, it is growing annually at about 10%. The appearance of new definitions to measure available information is just one indication of these swift changes—gigabytes, which in the only distant past seemed so large, has been quickly surpassed by exabytes, zettabytes and yottabytes. While the report focuses on compelling stories of how information is transforming business practices, I wondered about the implications for the nonprofit sector. To what extent can we further harness technology-induced data and tools to transform nonprofit practices? How might we use:
- Data exhaust, the valuable information left from the trail of internet users’ clicks,
- Broader and easier access to public information from the biggest generator and collector of data—the government (e.g., www.data.gov),
- Cloud computing, in which the internet is used as a platform to collect, store and process data, allowing organizations to lease computing power when they need it rather than buying expensive equipment, and
- Open source software, which allows the examination and presentation of data without the purchase of expensive and complicated software packages and updates (e.g., Google Analytics, a free software that provides in-depth reporting on Web site usage).
- Hand held devices and other new technologies that facilitate quicker and cheaper collection and use of information across users and sites.
Whether we like it or not, we are part of a grand experiment of how information will impact our lives. For those of us committed to the nonprofit sector, we are at an exciting moment to influence how these new found technologies can propel us towards the change that we want to see.