Crowdfunding for Data
At the end of 2014 (December 30), I sent out a series of tweets that tried to encapsulate my thoughts around an idea for a business model I’ve had for over a decade. It’s a combination of the Kickstarter phenomenon with prescribed crowdsourcing, potential benefits to the OpenStreetMap community, and most certainly, less-developed environments around the world that would like geospatial data but to-date, have none (or very little). This would be decidedly different from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, MapGive, or MissingMaps efforts. Those all have a vision, mission and vital role, respectively.
The concept I was tweeting about would be a platform dedicated to funding and building geospatial capacity (yes, technology, training & GIS data) for host entities (typically local governments) in less-developed countries. The administrative unit is irrelevant, so it could be a village, town, city, county, province, or entire country perhaps. The mechanics would work something like this, and I will just use an example to avoid abstracting too much.
The mayor of a small city (population 25,000) in West Africa has no digital map data. The mayor is convinced that GIS data can enable better governance and provide untapped potential for socioeconomic growth and an increase in the qualify of life for consituents of the small city.
The mayor initiates a campaign on the website (not Kickstarter, but similar) and builds a case for why people should contribute funds, sets a minimum amount needed, and makes the pitch for how the data would be put to use, what the Government’s policy is on data transparency, open data, privacy, or whatever the mayor is or isn’t willing to commit to publicly as part of the campaign. This is a fundamental difference and shift from most, if not all, other crowdsourcing / crowdfunding efforts in the geospatial area, and its an important difference. The mayor gets to decide what’s best for the city, not the crowd that is funding. There may be local laws, national laws, or other restrictions that prevent the mayor (in this scenario) from making the data 100% open when completed, or even partially open. This is ok. It has to be ok. Furthermore, the type and kind of data that the mayor wants and needs to achieve the governance and economic growth goals may never be acceptable as “open data” in any circumstance, not even in the United States. This concept relies fully on the notion that the local community knows best how to solve their own problems, but lacks initial resources (data, knowledge, technology) to get that done.
The platform would have tiered reporting requirements for the mayor. That is, if the campaign is to raise $50,000, then there may be one set of reporting and transparency requirements that the mayor would have to agree to if successful in reaching that funding goal. If the objective is $1,000,000, then there would likely need to be a very different, much more robust set of reporting requirements. Allowing even for phased implementations, so that the total funding is not at risk, but “buckets” of money are tied to success milestones that can be reported on and verified (by an independent, 3rd party — more on that later). This makes sense, even logistically and pragmatically for nearly all mapping and GIS projects, all the money is not needed on Day 1. The campaign would likely need to identify what money or what percentage would be spent on what activities or which type of data (ie. 20% on training for approximately 50 people, or 50% on labor for field data collection, or 15% on hardware & software). These are important metrics for both the mayor to live up to, as well as the donor or crowdfunding community to ensure that the money they collectively donate is going toward legitimate efforts with measurable results.
Now, presuming the campaign reaches the minimum funding threshold to be successful (again, could be a first phase of many in reality), the funds would ideally be put in temporary escrow. The reason for this is simple: the process isn’t done.
As part of the platform, in the background, and not part of the crowdfunding community, would be an “Angie’s List” type catalog of vendors and service providers for the geospatial industry. Everyone would be welcome, from sole proprietors to industry giants. Everyone would have a profile page, reputation ranking, previous engagement reviews & comments from past performances within the context of the platform (no one would really care how many users or customers a vendor or provider has worldwide outside of this platform, it’s irrelevant and counterproductive). Members of this vendor community would be entitled to “bid” or more likely, participate in a reverse auction (that is, offer successively lower bids until a winner emerges after the time period expires for the auction). The point of this is to engage the most qualified service providers and vendors capable of performing parts (probably not “all”) of the work required for the mayor, and maximize the value of the funding for the mayor and the crowd that funded the campaign.
The mayor would then need to make a selection based on information provided by the service provider or vendor in the profile + the first winning “bid”. The mayor wouldn’t be obligated to contract with the lowest bidder, even if that is the preference. As in any contracting process, there can be insurmountable gaps in terms, conditions, or other aspects of law that make the match untenable and the mayor needs flexibility to move on quickly to the next lowest bidder, for example. The funding community (for the mayor’s campaign) would have insight into the roster of vendor(s) the mayor has selected. Each vendor that gets an award (piece of the funding pie) would be required to comply with certain reporting and transparency conditions, both for the sake of the mayor and the funders. Things like project completion status, funds spent to-date, delays, objective hazards to success, etc. — basically a rolling SWOT analysis on some frequency over the course of their project contribution, all online in full view of the community involved.
Once the service providers are selected and under contract with the mayor, then the relevant campaign funds can be released from escrow to the mayor in order to execute the effort (for the phase, stage or entirety of the project).
Some readers may already be naysaying and asking “How would crowd funders know the mayor won’t just take the money and run away?” The answer is, they don’t know with 100% certainty. Kickstarter makes this very explicit as well, and it’s largely up to the funder to determine tolerance for risk and whether or not the mayor is credible, has integrity and can be entrusted with funds and given the benefit of the doubt. The mayor would have to be real, be convincing, and make a compelling argument for why the campaign has merit and the crowdfunding community would have to vote with dollars (or not) based on the merits available.
In typical crowdfunding efforts, the individuals donating various sums of cash would be reasonable in expecting something in return (a coffee mug, a t-shirt, hat, plaque, and so forth). The rub, and potential “kiss of death” for this idea of mine, is that I haven’t come up with a suitable analog for the mayor to “give back” to the funders, outside of the standard “I helped Mayor X make maps” t-shirt gimmick. Maybe that’s sufficient. My gut tells me that every penny of the campaign funds should and would be needed by the mayor to get the effort completed (and likely even every penny would still fall short — that’s how it goes in the geospatial world). So, would a crowdfunding community be “ok” with and contribute to this effort knowing that their only return on investment is in the satisfaction of knowing they’ve done something noble and worthwhile, in true altruistic fashion, for a community that they (the funders) may never see firsthand? I’m too old to be blindly idealistic, but I do think there is a segment of the community that would indeed, “pay it forward” in this manner.
The ROI isn’t instantaneous — having land ownership mapped for every plot of land so that the mayor can accurately and efficiently collect taxes and land can be bought and sold, legally, with title history, does not yield immediate results once the mayor has spent all the campaign funds and puts all the data into a live, production environment. That may be difficult for some funders — especially those with nanosecond attention spans. Perhaps this is why I haven’t built out this crowdfunding platform. I figured out how I could make money to grow and expand it, but I was never convinced to the point of action, that the community would seize the opportunity and make it work for the tens of thousands of “mayors” around the world trying to govern without the data they need to be truly effective for their communities.
Maybe publishing this will prompt someone smarter, more resourceful, more energetic or with more charisma to figure the last part out and make it so, or put the final nail in the coffin and I can let it go.