Policy by the Numbers

Data for sound policymaking from Google and friends

The Clothesline Paradox and the Hidden Economies of the Web

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Nick Grossman is the founder of the Connected Innovation Network, visiting scholar at the MIT Center for Civic Media, and "activist in residence" at Union Square Ventures.

This Spring, we hosted an event at Union Square Ventures called Hacking Society, which brought together a small group of entrepreneurs, activists, academics, investors, and policy wonks to discuss how networks are changing everything—and what that means for future of policy, advocacy and politics. The archives are worth spending some time with if you have a few minutes.

At the event, Tim O'Reilly launched a discussion around the issue of "visualizing the web's hidden economies." You can see the full 13-minute video of the conversation here, but for this post, I'll focus on one particularly relevant section where he calls out a phenomenon known as "the clothesline paradox":

[The Clothesline Paradox] was about solar energy and the notion that we put our clothes in the dryer and collectively that adds up to some amount of energy that we measure on our utility bills and collectively as a society adds up to our fossil fuel economy.

We take our clothes out hang them on the line. They don't get moved to some kind of solar ledger. They just disappear. We don't measure them at all. And it seems to me there's a lot of economic value on the Internet that is like that clothesline paradox.
Quantifying and visualizing the web's hidden economies is an information problem on several levels: 1) we have the clothesline paradox in terms of how we fundamentally conceptualize economic change; 2) data that would be useful in having a conversation about this is diffuse and non-standard; and 3) in addition to numerical data we also need to collect other types of data, such as stories, timelines, linkages, etc.

This becomes a policy issue when we start to see concentrated harm (typically in industries being disrupted by networks) paired with diffuse, difficult to quantify benefit (new, awesome things that are happening on and because of the web). Having better data to support this transition is critical to making effective policy arguments.

Lucky for us, the web is good at solving information problems. So we should think about what we can do that can help us "quantify sunshine"—i.e., produce, collect and distribute the data and stories that make the invisible visible and start to tell a fuller story of what's happening with the web.

Web platforms already publish their own stories and impact metrics. AirBnB's Global Growth infographic highlights 5mm in monthly bookings, and their Life page surfaces stories of economic empowerment; the impact page for Donors Choose shows $122mm raised to support 7mm students; Khan Academy's stories page catalogs individual stories of advancement made possible on the platform; Google's economic impact page highlights $80bn in economic activity touching 1.8mm businesses; Twitter's stories page only touches the tip of the iceberg of amazing things made possible because of their platform.

So, the bones are there, but we need to do a better job assembling the full skeleton. We have an opportunity—and increasingly a need—to build this distributed data collection and storytelling into a more cohesive, complete, and real-time platform. We should do this in a way that's consistent with the web's characteristics and strengths (distributed, built on standards, social, layered, networked), and build permanent, open infrastructure to help solve this information problem in a web-scale way.

We're working on one slice of a solution here, and I encourage you to join us. But more importantly, let's think about how we as a community can build an open platform for data that supports informed policymaking across the web.