Though millions of non-profit entities exist worldwide, their activity, social impact, financial performance and effectiveness remain relatively mysterious, at least in aggregate. In order to increase their transparency, four leading non-profit organisations partnered with my company, a Polish software development firm, to build a platform that would uniquely identify social sector entities around the globe – a vital first step towards understanding the bigger picture.
Identity, Transparency and Data
BRIDGE – the Basic Registry of Identified Global Entities – assigns non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other social sector entities with a unique ‘numerical fingerprint’. The aim of the project is to enable those entities to identify themselves, and therefore share information about their social impact, financial performance and effectiveness more easily.
BRIDGE was founded when four non-profit organisations came together to attempt to collectively solve a problem all were facing. With the non-profit sector encompassing millions of organisations from multi-chapter internationals to churches, a method to globally and uniquely identify them was needed not only for those working within the social sector, but for countless other end users involved in anything touching non-profit related data.
A lot of money, data and activity flows between these entities – but unlike the for-profit world, no coherent way to identify and track that flow, or compare one data set to another, exists.
With the help of funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Google, Inc., the four founding organisations have worked for the last three years to build a central system for unique identifiers. A blunt tool to begin with, the original method of mashing together their four existing databases has been refined to result in a public database and big plans for future expansion.
Chad McEvoy, project manager for BRIDGE, and his team brought my organisation, Silesia-based outsource software developer, Future Processing, on board to help develop the database. The solution, integrated into the Amazon AWS cloud, enabled the storage and vitally, the deduplication of the millions of organisations already on file.
As McEvoy explains, due to the lack of infrastructure in the non-profit sector, various identities – domestic or tied to a specific country – can exist for one organisation. At present, some 2.7 million verified BRIDGE numbers have been registered, down from 3.3 million following the identification of 540,000 duplicates in the system. BRIDGE essentially acts as a giant phonebook, says McEvoy.
Getting Creative with Data
As a technical project, the creation of BRIDGE was challenging throughout, not least due to the multiple layers of data that had to be taken into consideration when designing the algorithm. Each system had data coming in at various levels – public data, core record and no data – and so an effective way to sift through and match the incoming data had to be found. The system that the BRIDGE team and Future Processing developed is capable of automatically going through all the data, matching terms to work out the probability of it being the same as another match. Though there are occasional misreads due to the sheer complexity, volume and geographical spread of the data, a lot of work went into training the algorithms to suit the space and it now operates at a high level of accuracy.
What’s Next for Non-Profits
With the BRIDGE database now publically accessible and around 3 million entities assigned their unique IDs, transparency within the sector has already increased substantially. While original plans were focused on better understanding the flow of philanthropic funding, a wide range of end users are already using BRIDGE for a variety of purposes. Organisations seeking to consume and utilise data about the non-profit world will eventually be able to use their BRIDGE ID numbers to acquire information from third parties for a rage of research and analysis.
One potential future function for BRIDGE will be enabling data mash ups. Analysts who are looking at the international flow will be able to use the database to identify where donated dollars to a humanitarian crisis or cause actually go; where that money is utilised; and who funds it. With all the data linked together by one single, unique ID, it will be possible to map the flow of activity and funds thoroughly and transparently. Fundamentally, before BRIDGE, there was no basic building block from which to create this information system.
The BRIDGE project has now launched its lookup tool, and the second phase of the project, which will aim to extend the range of the system, is currently underway. The hope, McEvoy says, is that BRIDGE will help partners, donors and NGOs find and understand each other more easily, and create a more accurate and holistic picture of what’s happening in the non-profit and international development sector for all.