"Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up."Bill Clinton
A new data exchange for the emerging social capital market is connecting isolated pockets of information about social enterprises and impact investments.
SODA, the SOcial DAta Commons, is either a geeky piece of infrastructure, or a step toward the kind of market liquidity that can unlock private capital for companies that aim to generate positive social and environmental impact. With SODA, any organization can share data on such impact ventures; any organization can access that data.
SODA is like the kernel of the new impact operating system that an interoperable network of platforms can build on.Kevin Jones, Convenor, Social Capital Markets conference
A half-dozen organizations that are tracking, connecting, matching and supporting social enterprises came together to create the lightweight exchange mechanism to raise their visibility and lower their costs. Each profile has about a dozen data fields, including company name, business summary, structure, geography, beneficiaries and social impact, as well as the source of the data.
The organizers say demonstrating a robust supply of market-based solutions to urgent challenges is crucial for meet the capital market’s growing demand for investment opportunities in food, water, healthcare, education, financial services, energy and other industries. Alas, the short history of impact investing is littered with fragmented networks and proprietary platforms.
“Over the past few years we’ve seen countless transaction and similar data platforms pop up in the social capital market space, but little or no connection between them,” reads the group’s manifesto. “From due diligence to the bank transactions that seal the deal, federating these islands of data helps maximize marketplace liquidity while minimizing duplication of effort.”
The founders include Artha Platform, ImpactSpace (a project of ImpactAlpha), Sphaera, Startgrid, SVX, US AID and SOCAP. All have uploaded and downloaded data profiles at the SODA data store on an independent Amazon cloud server.
The SODA crew will be all over this week’s Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco, seeking additional participants. Two sessions at the conference will explore ways to deepen and broaden the collaboration. The first will refine technical and governance issues, while the second will tackle “what’s next?”
“We are not asking platform founders to tear down their walls and share their kitchen sinks; we are asking them to keep doing what they do well in the niche, high-touch relationship-based networks they curate,” said Audrey Selian, director of Artha Platform, which enables collaborative due diligence between impact investors. “What we are asking is that the pipeline side of their platforms be more fluid and more easily accessible for simple exposure and visibility.”
Here at ImpactAlpha, we’ve been longtime champions of data-sharing and transparency (see Part 1 and Part 2 of our “Put Your Data Where Your Mouth Is” series). Our ImpactSpace open impact database has grown to include more than 5,700 ventures, 1,900 investors and 2,500 deals.
Sphaera is a social enterprise dedicated to putting the best solutions into the hands of people working on the frontlines of change. “We see SODA as a vital part of the infrastructure for accelerating the pace of social change,” says Astrid Scholz, Sphaera’s Chief Everything Officer. “It will help with the flow of resources for solutions to urgent social and environmental challenges.”
Other participants are using the data commons to augment their own platforms for communities, matchmaking, investment exchanges, job boards, newsfeeds and other applications.
“This is the foundation that will enable scaling and for momentum to not fragment the movement, but to translate it to a wider audience and community,” said Kevin Jones, co-founder and curator of Socap. “SODA is like the kernel of the new impact operating system that an interoperable network of platforms can build on.”
The group’s manifesto says all are welcome but the initial focus on investable deals suggests that entities that are “connecting projects to donors, introducing donors to entrepreneurs, generating and disseminating knowledge about best practices, solutions and sustainability, creating standards certifications as they relate to impact, or any similar action of intermediation (particularly using technology platforms) should be first in line.”
SODA’s organizers say they are taking a page from the Internet playbook and countless other examples that demonstrate that a robust commons enables products and services that add real value on top of a shared foundation.
The Internet, of course, grew into a network far more resilient and useful than the siloed, corporate networks that once seemed likely to prevail. Geeky protocols such as TCP/IP and HTTP created a technology commons that spawned unlimited innovation and entrepreneurship.
The history lesson is instructive for the impact investing community, which is attempting a similar redirection, of private capital to social and environmental benefit. Paradoxically, the growth of an impact marketplace may depend on the resilience and depth of the social data commons.
This article was originally published online at Impact Alpha.