Beyond information: 4 hunches on building the infrastructure for impact

Eric Henderson of Markets for Good recently asked me what was needed to build an information infrastructure for the social sector. Their vision is ambitious and important, and with the right approach it could transform how change happens.  Here are my hunches about what’s required, and what we’re already doing to make it happen.

1. Focus on impact

It’s easy to get excited about data and information. They’re hot topics, and rightly so. As we wade into the digital revolution, we’re flooded with things demanding our attention. And the things we want others to see keep getting lost in the tsunami of everything else. But let’s step back for a second.  Think of this like swimming across a river. The goal is to get across the river, not to go for a swim. What I need is a way to get across. And in the case of this infrastructure, what we need goes beyond data standards, quality, and accessibility to include supports that help us achieve impact more efficiently, and with greater efficacy.

2. Harness networks and relationships

If the purpose is to help impact happen, then the infrastructure must also include the people, relationships, and networks involved. Whether it is the person leading change, the team working with them, the ecosystem supporting their effort, our ability to achieve impact is very much dependent on the networks and relationships we bring to bear. Indeed, understanding networks and relationships is coming to be a central challenge in achieving meaningful change. When it comes to information, the same relationships and informal networks play an increasing role in how we share and what we discover. This infrastructure needs to tap into our relationships and networks, wherever they are.

3. Find signal in the noise

Despite our best efforts to standardize and improve the quality of data, the vast majority will always be unstructured, inaccurate, and mostly irrelevant until we find ways to use it. Who would have thought Twitter would become useful in earthquake detection or Google (maybe) in monitoring flu trends. Tapping into this sea of noise could be a core feature of what this infrastructure provides, enabling new, creative approaches to understand how impact happens. With the majority of humanity already able to send messages about the things that are impacting them, even old ideas like using sentiment analysis to understand change could bring entirely new insights. This infrastructure needs to rewire the web for impact.

4. A platform for a new generation of impact enabling tools

Of course, as we discover more of what we truly need from this infrastructure, we will find opportunities to build new tools. And no, this does not mean a shiny new place for groups to have conversations that they are already having on Facebook and LinkedIn. And it certainly doesn’t mean a fridge with a screen, baby monitor, and evernote. What it does mean are specific impact related tools, resources, and supports like Fix My Street and CrowdMap; Innoweave and Open Workshop; and NationBuilder and OpenIDEO. For this  infrastructure to thrive, it needs to support a creative explosion of tools like this.

The digital infrastructure for the impact ecosystem.

Ultimately, what we are talking about here is more than an information infrastructure. It is a digital infrastructure for the impact ecosystem. If we find our way to making it happen, it would mean the web could work with impact like it can work with location. Just like I can now expect my smartphone to help me find the best route through the most congested traffic: the web could show me search results based on what I’m working on; my social networks could connect with me with the people who could help me have the most impact; and the impact of my actions could be automagically tracked and available to whoever I choose to share it with. Imagine even, not having to respond to yet another sector survey, census, or mapping initiative with the same information you have already provided a dozen times before.

Of course, this may take a decade or more to become reality. It is itself a deeply systemic innovation and requires more than a handful of initiatives. It needs to follow the best practices emerging around collective impact and could do well to harness new methods for catalyzing social innovation. Markets for Good is a great start. It needs to be well supported and to either rise to the level of the impact infrastructure or join with others in making it happen.

Our contributions of interface, infrastructure, and collaboration

In our own pocket of the world at Igniter, we are working towards this in partnership with Ashoka, MaRS, and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. What began as a simple experiment has evolved into set of interface, infrastructure and conversations we are calling

Responding to ongoing need of mapping who’s doing what in communities all over the world, we began by prototyping the interface. It is a simple tool for individuals, researchers, and network managers to map, discover, and connect participants in the system. Launching in April with the world’s largest map of social entrepreneurs, it will also be a simple utility for communities to gain insight into their membership and collective networks. And for individuals we aim to create the best weekly email of recommended activity and connections based on their unique relationship to the ecosystem.

As part of that process we uncovered the need for two new technologies that are central to enabling this digital infrastructure. The first, called the Impact Graph, integrates formal and informal relationship networks with impact data to provide new methods of discovery, analysis, and exploration of the impact ecosystem. The second, scheduled for development this summer, is a Behaviour Engine designed to broadly encourage the behaviours of data gathering and network weaving across the entire ecosystem. Together, these technologies form the core infrastructure that we aim to make available for broader use later this year.

While we are still prototyping, we have already received requests to develop custom interfaces and applications to support networks of entrepreneurs, link relationship graphs to existing stores of impact data, and generally harness the collective social networks of existing formal communities.  We are also encountering requests to use our underlying infrastructure to power new and existing applications, saving developers from having to create their own user profile systems and simultaneously leveraging the network awareness that this infrastructure brings.

Finally, in order to help keep our activities aligned with the emerging ecosystem, we have convened a small working group. Members of this group already span 4 countries and will hopefully grow to include representation from the main stakeholder groups in the ecosystem. Alongside this, we are hosting a series of ‘mini-labs’ to help improve our collective understanding and uncover actionable needs and high-potential interventions. The first of those will happen April 9th in London, UK with the second scheduled for October 1st in Calgary, Canada.

A better future, sooner.

What has been sparked by Markets for Good is an incredible opportunity, and while building an infrastructure on this scale is ambitious, it’s not any more ambitious than other major infrastructure projects we’ve taken on over history. At the same time, if we consider the challenges we are facing as a civilization, we could find reason to be more motivated than ever before. If we choose to make this happen, the results could go down as the greatest collective effort at increasing our capacity to create a better future, sooner. And to me, that’s worth diving in.


Special thanks to Tim Draimin, Michael Soto, and Scott Wofford for their feedback on earlier drafts of this post.

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