Postcard from Brussels: Digital Impact

Jun 28, 2017   |   Jessica Weare

Lucy Bernholz of Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab, Maria Orejas of the European Foundation Center and Andrew Means of Uptake
Lucy Bernholz of Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab, Maria Orejas of the European Foundation Center and Andrew Means of Uptake

Do you love reading Q&As? Me too! This June I’m traveling through Europe with Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab. Over the past few years, the lab has built tools to help civil society use digital data safely, effectively, and ethically. Now, they want to pressure test these tools around the world. Does data policy built in Silicon Valley work in Brussels? What does privacy mean to non-profits in Berlin? Can I eat all of Europe? Let’s find out!

Obviously, this spring has been an unsettled time in Europe, with political uncertainty and violent events in multiple cities. These Digital Impact events convene a diverse group of cross-sector civic stakeholders.  Ideally, strengthened interpersonal ties and shared knowledge will increase civic resilience, an effort that felt yet more urgent in the current context.

Some members of the European Foundation Center wore these pins in solidarity with Hungarian based NGOs facing new funding restrictions.
Some members of the European Foundation Center wore these pins in solidarity with Hungarian based NGOs facing new funding restrictions.

Where in the world is Jessica (and why)?

The European leg of the Digital Impact World Tour kicked off in Brussels, de facto capital of the European Union. Over the next year, Brussels is where all sectors of the EU — governments, corporations, small businesses, non-profits, foundations and more — will plan for the May 2018 implementation of the General Data Protection Regulations, the “most important change in data privacy regulation in twenty years” (there’s even a countdown clock on the main website, in case you’re not yet feeling the urgency).

The GDPR will require that organizations working in the EU respect and protect all personal data, no matter where that data is sent, processed or stored. Considering that many of the organizations that send, process or store data in the EU do so across global borders, the GDPR has massive implications for technology policy and practice all around the world. As Manu Bhardwaj of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth put it, “what happens in Brussels will be replicated elsewhere.” So how can every organization adequately prepare? 

What is the data community in Brussels thinking about?

The GDPR will apply to all organizations, across sectors — and there are stiff penalties attached for non-compliance. So this isn’t a nice-to-do for NGOs and foundations in the EU; it’s a must-do and a must-get-right. While the goals of the GDPR dovetail with the high value EU organizations and residents place on personal privacy, EU-based NGOs will have to navigate multiple competing pressures:

    • GDPR regulation compliance (mandatory!)
    • The privacy of the people NGOs serve (often the most vulnerable members of society)
    • Opportunities to use data to better serve those vulnerable people
    • Pressure from funders to collect enough data to produce impressive metrics
    • The need (in a resource-starved sector) to have the right technology to manage that data
    • The additional need to train NGO and foundation staff on data policy and literacy
Cornelia Kutterer of Microsoft talks with Lucy Bernholz and Estelle Masse of Access Now
Cornelia Kutterer of Microsoft talks with Lucy Bernholz and Estelle Masse of Access Now

And that balancing act is echoed on the corporate side as well: Cornelia Kutterer, Senior Director of EU Government Affairs and Privacy and Digital Policies at Microsoft’s Brussels office, said that preparing for the GDPR was the “busiest time I’ve ever experienced in Brussels,” and noted her need to consider geopolitics alongside local concerns alongside company priorities, all in the context of the future of technology.

Wild asparagus: new to me, fantastically named
Wild asparagus: new to me, fantastically named

What questions emerged?

The group identified major challenges facing civil society in Brussels, including developing (and funding) data capacity within the sector, accounting for algorithmic bias, and the duty for NGOs and funders to serve as ethical exemplars within the context of the GDPR. One difficult question the group couldn’t answer was how to build the appropriate level of urgency in the civil sector regarding data management — in other words, how to prevent a data disaster before it hits. Review the full agenda and speaker list of Digital Impact Brussels here (video coming soon).

What did Jessica eat?

Guys, Brussels isn’t just for moules-frites anymore (although there’s nothing wrong with a classic). I had amazing cuckoo bird with gingerbread at Belga Queen, cardamom-infused drinking chocolate at Zaabar and a mini-waffle at the Place du Chatelain farmers’ market so good that I squealed at the first bite.

Side note: Belgian farmers’ markets feature *multiple* wine bars, along with vegetables I’ve never seen before. My beloved California farmers’ markets, consider yourselves on notice!

What’s next?

The Digital Impact world tour is off to Imperial College in London, so brace yourselves for some complex civil and political context. Read more about the Brussels event here and learn what the community identified as needs and resources here.

Microsoft is a proud sponsor of the Digital Impact world tour. Follow the tour at #DIworldtour and http://www.dataworldtour.org.

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Jessica Weare
Jessica Weare

Since joining Microsoft in 2012, Jessica has driven Microsoft’s philanthropic work in Silicon Valley, including grant making and employee engagement. As Philanthropy and Civic Engagement Manager, she now focuses on civic engagement projects in San Jose and Santa Clara County. In 2014, Jessica worked closely with Silicon Valley Community Foundation to launch the region’s first-ever online day of giving, Silicon Valley Gives, which raised more than $8 million in 24 hours and benefitted over 650 non-profits in the Bay Area. Jessica joined Microsoft after completing her Ph.D. in literature at Stanford University.