The Impact: Software for Social Good
Anh Bui on ecosystem engagement & driving systemic change
Welcome to The Impact, our blog series that spotlights thought leaders pioneering the software for social good ecosystem. At Benetech, we know that the social sector must embrace the power of software and data to realize positive, lasting impact at scale. The Impact will share insights from Benetech community members putting software and data to work for social change.
Today we welcome Anh Bui, VP of Benetech Labs. Anh and her team are at the forefront of social-good software innovation, serving as a bridge between the social sector and Silicon Valley. Benetech Labs is focused on identifying software solutions that maximize social impact, not profit. A big part of Anh’s work is bringing together communities through ecosystem engagement.
Let’s dive in!
What is ecosystem engagement and can you provide an example?
Ecosystem engagement is a process that acknowledges that a standalone software solution is not the answer to big problems faced by people in need, no matter how well you think you know your users. In the social impact space, you have to engage the entire ecosystem around an issue and partner deeply and broadly with stakeholders who make up the world where the end user is operating. Ecosystem engagement is the best way to drive lasting, systemic change. A single solution or product is only part of the picture. For example, when you build tools for students with disabilities, you’re not just focused on developing one thing those students and their teachers need; you’re actively collaborating with others in the field and creating communities of practice, open standards and infrastructure, and building networks of stakeholders who can all work together toward making change. Your product has more impact when it’s part of a thriving ecosystem.
What does ecosystem engagement mean when it comes to data?
It means approaching data collection, management, and analysis not as something an organization does by itself. Instead, it means investing in data collaboration as a best practice. Let’s take an example from the social-service sector. An organization that directs people in need to services might keep a database (or Word Doc, or spiral notebook, or contact list, etc.) of relevant services available to those in their community and records of whom they’ve referred. A youth program in Oakland might also, for instance, offer referrals to food banks as part of its daily work. That is data for action, or information needed for the organization’s day-to-day operations to provide its services. Ecosystem engagement means building communities of organizations and coordinating the tools to share that data for action, and make that sharing a sustainable activity. Not only does this produce more comprehensive data, but it also allows for multiple organizations to benefit from data-driven insights and from shared tools.
Collecting and sharing data is great, but how can all that data be put to even more use by the software for social good ecosystem?
Data for action is only part of the story. Every professional in the information and social services ecosystem also wrangles with the problem of data for impact, or big picture information that demonstrates the impact of services and interventions. For instance, you could have data that describes a food bank service—its name, address, the kinds of the food it carries, how many people it serves, even eligibility criteria—but what is often as or more powerful is data that describes how that food bank is used—the number of repeat visitors, how visitors find it, where they go before and after their visit, how valuable that visit was to them relative to other experiences. This means sharing data about use across organizations to get the full picture of each user’s experience and to understand and improve that user’s outcomes. To understand and engage the ecosystem, we need to know how it’s occupied and lived in. We need to trace maps of use and understand local patterns of interaction. We need to follow the user’s journey through the system and then engage with each organization the user encounters along the way and ask what role each organization played for that user.
Is ecosystem engagement and sharing data gaining traction in the social sector?
Encouragingly, the social sector is increasingly embracing collective impact, cross
-sector collaborative efforts, and community-driven projects. The concept of open data is not new; the promise of open data is being aggressively analyzed and experimented on by numerous organizations both public and private. There are a number of common challenges that almost always emerge in those conversations, having to do with everything from data ethics to data sustainability. But the social sector needs to invest in the open, ethical, and sustainable sharing of data and to organize collaborative analysis efforts that provide a better picture of the ecosystem. This is data for action and impact. This is how we do better, together.