Why unknown unknowns can be valuable

Guest blog post by Martin Brookes of Brookes Impact Partnership

Just after the United States entered the second world war in 1941, Winston Churchill visited US President Roosevelt and stayed in the White House. During the visit, Roosevelt went into his guest’s room just after Churchill had stepped out of the bath naked. According to history, Roosevelt apologised and tried to withdraw, but Churchill urged him to stay, saying, “The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States.”

Debates about transparency and openness often feel like this – the emphasis placed on proving you have “nothing to hide”. Calls for openness start from a default position of suspicion and distrust, with “transparency as disinfectant” a common refrain in discussions.

Martin BrookesAn alternative perspective starts from the position that openness creates the potential for new insights and ideas. This, more positive view, is most often seen in discussions about open data, particularly government datasets. It is a view embodied in the work of 360Giving which encourages funders, private as well as public sector, to share data on the grants they make. Importantly, the shared data must conform to certain standards to be open so that it “can be freely used, modified and shared by anyone for any purpose.”

360Giving want to open up all grants funding in the UK. Bringing the data together in one place and in the same format makes it easier for anyone to find out who is funding what, how much and what for. The big prize is that anyone can use the information to support their decision-making and learning about charitable giving.

This is an ambitious agenda and a laudable one. Grantmaking can be opaque and while grantmakers often talk to one another, it can be difficult to access relevant data and look at trends. For organisations applying to funders, having good data is invaluable. One of the challenges of the charitable sector – for grantmakers and fundraisers – is that the quality of information is poor and it does not flow easily.

To date, 97 funders have shared their data with 360Giving, representing £26bn of grants. I played a small role in this when I was Director of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation in 2013-14 as that organisation developed a new strategy.

During this time, 360Giving’s founder Fran Perrin asked if the foundation would share their data in the standard format they had developed. The conversation was brief; I agreed instantly. So, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, one of the UK’s largest independent foundations, supported 360Giving early, hopefully giving it a boost.

It was an easy decision to make. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation had much to be proud of in its funding – it tried to do the right thing, to support good organisations and ideas, and do so thoughtfully. All the grants of the foundation were already published in the annual report. The change simply involved making it available in a form which people could manipulate and play with easily. The potential downsides were slight. It was also clear from the outset that 360Giving had a positive vision of how the data might be used. That vision has continued.

There is one aspect of 360Giving which I believe is important but often left implicit. It concerns the idea of unknown unknowns, a phrase popularised by then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the invasion of Iraq in 2002.

Publishing data in an open format means by definition that one does not control how it might be used. This creates the possibility of applications of the data which one does not foresee, addressing questions to which one does not know the answers. Unknown unknowns, in other words.

Unknown unknowns are usually framed as bad – two layers of uncertainty and risk to try to manage. For example, how to cope with uncertainty in strategy development in business. One instinctively thinks of risks and pitfalls faced with such double uncertainty.

The same thinking might disincline a grantmaker to share their data. Two layers of unknowns and a loss of control sounds dangerous! I believe the opposite is the case though. For funders it should be seen as positive – what valuable questions might be answered if others could access and use our data?

That is simultaneously both a modest and a more ambitious position. It is modest because it recognises that grantmakers might not have the resources, expertise or the insights to think of useful questions and different applications of their data. They might not know ways of looking at their own data which could be useful to them. Incorporating data from other funders should add to this value. The viewpoint is more ambitious because it recognises the possibility of applications of data which have a wider public value.

The role of unknown unknowns was apparent in 2018 when 360Giving ran a data visualisation challenge, inviting all-comers to explore how the dataset might be presented. Neither 360Giving nor the grantmakers whose data was used could have known the results in advance. The entries were a delightful range of imaginative and creative ways of presenting data which add to collective understanding of grantmaking.

We are starting to see further applications of the data to explore patterns of funding, such as NPC’s recent work looking at funding of homelessness. More will follow and I am confident that 360Giving data will become an increasingly valuable and exploited resource in the sector.

When I agreed that Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s data should be published according to the 360Giving data standard, I didn’t know how it would be used. Neither did other staff in the foundation or the trustees. (The trustees might have needed to sign off on the idea, I cannot recall.) I simply knew the data was a resource which could be shared at little cost or risk and that other people would determine its full value. It was essentially a one way bet – the downsides were slight and there were significant, if unclear, potential upsides.

Recognising the value of opening datasets is commonplace in other arenas; it underpins much of the push to share government datasets, for example. 360Giving’s strategy and pitch to grantmakers embraces this aspect of uncertainty, but it does so only implicitly. The idea of valuable unknown unknowns does not appear to be an explicit part of the proposition. Neither is it part of wider discussion about funders’ data. For example, a report by NPC on funders valuing data begins its advice to funders –  “Start with the problem you are trying to solve.” That is, I believe, too limited when talking about data.

I would advocate a complementary train of thought which begins “Do not presume you know all the interesting questions.” If funders follow this line of reasoning, their knowledge and effectiveness, as well as that of others, will grow over time. Moreover, if you do not know the benefits people might get from access to your data, the imperative should be to share it, to create the potential for value. The biggest uncertainties in such a step are positive. Unknown unknowns can be good for you, in other words.