In December I spoke at the second Manchester Sunday Assembly, a gathering for people who recognise the great things a church can offer but aren’t so keen on the supernatural. If you haven’t been I can highly recommend it. There are groups popping up around the world where you can sing together, listen to interesting talks, drink tea and eat cake. There must have been over a hundred people at the one I attended at Manchester’s Victoria baths, a beautiful if chilly venue.
In the run up to Christmas the theme of the event was giving, so I decided to do a talk about the future of giving. I wanted to look at the way in which we give charitable donations, political support, and our own data might change in the future. This was a new area for me and not one in which I’ve done lots of research, so please forgive the use of anecdote and treat it more as an essay than an exercise in empiricism.
The slides on their own (embedded below and available at Slideshare) are a little incomprehensible so I’ve included the full script below too. This was written for me to say rather than be read as text, so please also forgive any grammatical errors.
A time for giving, a time for getting,
A time for forgiving, and for forgetting.
Christmas is love, Christmas is peace
A time for all hating and fighting to cease.
With those words, Sir Cliff blighted every Christmas album since 1988. But saccharine though they are, few can disagree with these sentiments. Christmas is a time for giving, and so I want to speak a little about giving in 2014 and how to be a better giver.
Human beings are good at giving. We’re a generous bunch as this chart from the CAF shows. If we have money, we donate it. While we may be feeling the pinch in Europe at the moment, the overall trend is one of growing wealth around the world. Millions more people are being lifted into the middle classes. Which means that millions more people will learn to play the game of psychological British bulldog we all play with chuggers on our high streets.
We like to think of ourselves as exceptionally generous in the UK, but the reality is that generosity is programmed into all human beings. Our own brains reward us for being generous in ultra pure, high grade narcotics.
When you give dopamine is released to the reward centres in the midbrain. And the subgenual area that is connected to social bonding is activated. Neuroscientists believe that years of experience has ingrained in our biochemistry the knowledge that we are much better off being part of a strong society. And so our brains reward us for contributing.
Generosity isn’t altruism, it’s science.
The problem is that when drugs are involved, natural or not, few of us make good decisions.
Which is why it’s so important to think about how, why and when you give.
Let me give you an example.
(If you don’t recognise him, this is Rob Ford, former mayor of Toronto. Google him if you don’t know his recent history).
The first thing I want to talk about is giving money to charity. This is a theoretical but it’s based on a real example relayed to me by someone working in the field.
Imagine you see a picture like this. You get a message: Help save the sight of this child for just £3. Text 7777.
A hundred thousand people click. The charity takes that money and uses it to build a clinic to provide medicine. Thousands of kids’ sight is saved. Great, right?
Now imagine the country they are targeting is failing and corrupt, but it still has the bones of a national health service. Its clinics are few and far between, and under resourced, but they are staffed by broadly skilled staff who treat a range of complaints.
A new crop of sight clinics pops up. Fresh, clean and widely publicised.
Now if you’re sick, which clinic are you going to go to? The fresh, clean one that is one hour’s walk away? Or the old decrepit one two hours walk away.
Unfortunately the first one only has the medicine and the mandate to treat you if you are under the age of 16 and have a specific sight condition. Having walked to one, you then have to walk to the other, angry and confused and that little bit sicker.
When you get there the other clinic remains overwhelmed and under resourced.
Now imagine the money raised here instead went to the national health service in that corrupt country. It doesn’t offer a compelling picture to put on the posters. Lots of the money might go into the pockets of corrupt officials. But the incremental improvement in that run down clinic might — in the long term — save many more lives and promote generally better standards of public health, driving economic as well as physical welfare.
Today we have no way to know if this is the case or not. But I’m told it’s the fear of many professionals working in international aid. What we need is better evidence to allow us, the donating public, to make better decisions based not on heart-rending pictures but based on genuine outcomes.
In the future we may find that the proliferation of mobile devices and social networks begins to provide us with this evidence.
Imagine if you could use social media to collect empirical evidence about the impact donations had on the ground in different countries. Small amounts of data from lots of people aggregated to create a clearer picture of aid need, outcomes, and the barriers that might prevent aid achieving its goal. Imagine if we could make our donations in the knowledge that every pound we put forward would have the maximum impact.
That might get our dopamine and oxycontin really flowing.
Now social networks and mobile devices are of course already deployed in social campaigning. Call it armchair activism. Call it slacktivism. Call it clicktivism. These days it’s very easy to lend your weight to an argument.
But should you?
This is the second type of future giving I want to talk about: giving your support to a campaign.
Take Avaaz, one of the largest networks for online activism. Avaaz isn’t all that popular with many traditional charities and campaigners. In part because it has achieved incredible scale and impact in a very short space of time. It has more than 30m members. But also because of the means it has used to achieve that scale.
Avaaz selects campaigns based not on a set of core beliefs, or even some empirical measure of which issues are the most important. It selects cases it believes will scale, and cases it can win.
Optimising campaigns for scale and impact often means dumbing down the argument. This is the one that caught my attention.
Now there is little doubt that the rush to first generation biofuels did drive food prices up. And that many first generation biofuels were less environmentally friendly than petrol.
But without subsidies there is little incentive to develop the next generation of biofuels. Ones that place less strain on food supplies and the environment. Ones that truly can be a weapon in the fight against climate change.
Dumb down your argument too far and suddenly you find yourself on the same side as big oil and climate change deniers.
Now it is hard to generate mass support for a campaign that gets into the nuances of subsidy policy and science. But without doing so campaigning is a blunt instrument that won’t always steer debates towards the best outcomes. Just those that look best when only considered in black and white.
Now just as it as first generation biofuels that it was campaigning against, Avaaz is itself a first generation online campaigning platform. I believe it will improve as the older campaigning organisations, currently complaining about its success, begin to adopt some of its tools. In fact to be fair to Avaaz it did improve this campaign, making it much more nuanced as you can see here.
What Avaaz has proven is the power of collecting users — and their data — online and directing them at specific causes. Which brings me to the third type of giving: data.
We have become very used to the value exchange that happens online. Hand over your data in return for a piece of content, or access to a social network. We’re comfortable with that because we get value back. It feels free to us because we have no way to sell the data we’re currently trading for access to a social network.
But if the data we’re giving up is really of such low value, then why is Facebook worth over a hundred billion dollars? Why in fact is the value of each of the major social networks roughly £60 per user?
If I go out to buy some consumer data I’ll expect to pay between 60p and £6 depending on what level of information I’m getting. Per thousand records.
Now the discrepancy between that and Facebook’s value is in part down to repeat sales: it can effectively sell our data over and over again. But it takes a lot of 0.0006 pounds to get to £60.
They’d have to sell access to every one of us a hundred thousand times.
What makes the difference is intention: social networks have so much information about us that they can put ads in front of us that we are more likely to click on. And as soon as we click, we are adding something vital to our data: intention.
Once you add intention to data, values go through the roof.
So, you’re advertising private health care on Facebook. Facebook knows their age and lifestyle. Facebook places adverts in front of the people most likely to click on them. Now I haven’t checked the cost per click for private health care on Facebook. But on Google, it’s £30 per click.
Suddenly Facebook only has to sell two clicks per person to justify its valuation.
Forgive my assumptions, but I doubt many people in this room are shopping for private health care. But we all shop. And increasingly we find our purchases online. Social networks make a lot of money from our data by using it to sell to us.
Referral schemes like Quidco are already helping us to share in the value of this data by sharing the fees they get for introducing us to retailers. But this is a clunky process at the moment. Increasingly I think we will take control of our own data and expect to be rewarded for sharing it with more than access to a social network.
In summary, when we’re giving money, we need to think more about the outcomes and less about the activities we’re funding. Today that is hard because we have little direct connection to those experiencing the outcomes. But Facebook has a staggering growth rate in the developing world. Mobile devices are proliferating at an incredible rate. What we need is an evidence network that enables us to rapidly collect and analyse data to make better decisions.
When we’re giving our support, we need to be more discerning. At the moment complex arguments lose out to simplified effective rhetoric — as has always been true in human history. The opportunity of technology is to better communicate the complex, but we need to think more too. Just like most of us have learned that those pages on Facebook that invite you to click if your mum is great or you have blue eyes are basically scams, so we must begin to differentiate the worthy causes from the link bait.
On giving our data, we need to value ourselves more. We need the tools to help us measure our value to advertisers and a brokering system so that we can access that value.
In short, whatever you are giving in 2014 remember: it’s the thought that counts.