Cracking open data

Michael Lenczner

Michael Lenczner is the CEO of Ajah, a Montreal-based company that develops online tools for fundraisers, and is also the Director of Powered by Data, a nonprofit initiative launched by Ajah that helps the nonprofit sector use data to increase its impact.

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Welcome to Countless Rebellions, the podcast series that explores the limits and potential of social innovation with academics, practitioners, and activists from across Canada. This series is produced in Montreal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka or Mohawk peoples, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations.

In this episode, I speak to Michael Lenczner, the CEO of Ajah, and the Director of Powered by Data, two organizations that advocate for and help nonprofits connect to open data.

Lenczner: The most inspiring community that I know of is the community I met through open source software — any of these renegades that were building their own technology, taking up our technology and reassembling it. I had a lot of heroes. One of my favourite ones right now is — or has been for a while — Carl Malamud. Carl Malamud, who recently sued the IRS [Inland Revenue Service] to get access to the tax forms of charities, so now we have access to data in the US that they never had access to before.

Why is it the renegades who are trying to free data — why does that capture your imagination so much? As opposed to the activists on the front line?

Lenczner: It’s kind of the Galileo thing. It’s like when Galileo was asked to recant his finding — the discovery that the earth circled the sun instead of the other way around. We know he did it — the story is that he recanted … but he then whispered something on the way out of court, something about, you know, that it’s true, what he discovered is true. And in this moment, where we talk a lot about fake news, and alternative facts and stuff, there’s a heroicness to just being like, “This is what I see, it doesn’t have to be true for someone else necessarily, but I’m not going to deny it, and this is why I think it, and explain to me why it’s not true.” And defending that, and saying that very clearly — I think that’s an interesting action and a lot of good things have happened because of it.

…we have this desire to think that things are the way they are for a really good reason. And, sometimes they’re not.

Lenczner: Both of the organizations I work with are open data shops. One takes open data and commercializes it, and another one works to make more open data available. So, it would seem nepotistic were it not for the actual qualities of open data. So Powered by Data works to make more data available to the nonprofit sector. And what’s great about it is there’s no gatekeeper. And there are so many things where there are gatekeepers, where you have to go ask permission for something, and I think that is one of the reasons why we don’t try more things and we don’t come up with solutions more quickly, because you need permission from somebody. You know, I’m not going to be able to change something about healthcare with good reason because there’s going to be lots of checks and balances, lots of permissions, and you know, those might be set up in a way that enables people to try things, or may not be.

Michael, for you, at its core, what is social innovation?

Lenczner: I imagine I’ll respond in the way probably other people have responded too, which is to say, I’m not quite sure! You know, it’s related to other terms like social entrepreneurship, social enterprises — they are often used in the same kind of breath. And it’s funny, I’ve never necessarily liked that label, and I remember when Ashoka came for the first time to Quebec and opened a Quebec office. When people figured out what Ashoka was talking about — when they launched — they were like: “So, if we understand this correctly, you’re talking about individuals that have a great idea, that work to make that idea take root.” And they’re like, “That’s not how social change happens. You do realize that, don’t you?” And they just ran straight into this wall of collective action that is really strong in Quebec. So it was really funny to be there. So I have philosophical problems with the idea of social innovation when it’s conceived of as a social innovator. But then I look back at what I’ve done for the last 20 years: I’m like, let’s try this thing, and then I go and take 20 people to work with me on it and try to pass a law, or create a new business model for the provision of telecommunications — or, you know, start a new company that offers new services to the nonprofit sector. So, I guess what I do fits under that. I think you can kind of tell from how I’m responding that a lot of this stuff is articulated in different ways than I would have maybe two years ago. So, it’s new to me for some of this stuff, and I’m kind of gaining courage around it — which is exciting, a little scary.

So, in my case, I draw a lot of energy from the community of geeks and hackers — you know, open source software geeks, community people, open data people.

Lenczner: I think of Vanessa Reid who’s someone I saw at Santropol Roulant. She didn’t found it but she was a leader there in crystallizing what Santropol Roulant was about. And you see it in these people that bring together people in different ways or find new ways to say things — [people that can] bring that message, either through a business model or through something else. I think we’re trying to describe those people — the kind of people that won’t stop until their idea has taken root. Lots of people have different good ideas about how things should be done. But it’s the not being able to sleep properly until other people not only see it your way, in terms of the values, but see the possibility that you’re imagining. I think the other thing about social innovation is that it’s bringing ideas from one space to another. Innovation is when you bring ideas from one space to another. It’s usually not inventing anything. So, in general, you know, there’s things that have been figured out in enterprise, in the creation of how you organize larger systems through problem models and through enterprise, and applying them whole to the nonprofit sector. Because there’s a lot of things that won’t make sense, but there’s some ideas that are really useful. Even today, learning about the idea of industry strategies — you know, a good way to think about how the nonprofit sector could collaborate better. And there’s some really good tools out there that other sectors are using. So, I think, there’s that idea of innovation as well as when you bring a different mindset, or a different toolset to a problem.

Lenczner: Maybe also it runs straight up against conceptions that society isn’t mutable — which any student of history would tell you is obviously not the case. But we have this desire to think that things are the way they are for a really good reason. And, sometimes they’re not. So having that idea of a social innovator is the person that kind of sparks some of those changes, but then we look back and think of as evident or as inevitable.

What’s challenging about being a social innovation practitioner?

Lenczner: It’s the idea that you’re trying to change how other people do things without having received a mandate to do that. And it’s kind of the imposter syndrome: “Who are you to tell everyone that they’re doing it wrong? Who are you to say that everyone even should look in a certain direction that is promising?” Because you do have that if it were an area that people were already investing in, it’s no longer social innovation. So again, by definition, it’s a new direction or it’s a new idea or a new space. And so to persuade people that they should be looking at this space, it’s just… you feel like you have a lot of gall. And that’s an exciting feeling sometimes, but it’s also a really demoralizing feeling because you set yourself up in opposition a lot of the time by doing that. It seems weird to say that you draw your energy from this idea you came up with. It doesn’t feel like that. It feels like something…you just turn the corner, and you saw something, and it’s something outside of you —  it’s not something you dreamed up. It’s just something that you can see better than other people can see it, around you, at least. I think that’s a part of what I draw energy from. But the other part of it is just, you know, other people that do share that, because it’s very rarely completely on your own. It’s just the people that usually see that potential are not in the places to make decisions necessarily. So those people that do share that with you — it’s just super meaningful. So, in my case, I draw a lot of energy from the community of geeks and hackers — you know, open source software geeks, community people, open data people. And they’re like, “Of course you could use open data to change agriculture!” “Of course you can use open data to do a better job, or data sharing, or data licensing to do a better job of a service delivery for people with complex needs.” They’re like, “absolutely!” And so that’s something that I’ve cultivated as a community of people sharing my kind of approach to something, and I’ve often gotten the idea from them, like you do with open data. I didn’t discover anything myself, I just learned about open data from other people that were already doing amazing work with it and just wanted to bring it back home to Canada and to the area that I was working in.

It is very difficult to draw a continuous line between the work that social innovators do and the markers of historical social change. When considering a change of government, or something like a Trump presidency, the sheer amount of scale can be daunting. I wanted to understand whether social innovation, which is often incremental, can have revolutionary outcomes.

Lenczner: Is social innovation revolutionary? It’s a great question. I think 99 times out of a 100 that it’s not. At all. Sorry, but I think it relates to how I think of innovation in general is this: even if I fail, even if my idea is not that good, or I’m not able to persuade other people that they should try it, or it fails for some other reason — you know, I get hit by a bus — I’m not doing something that is actually that special, because there’s so many people doing exactly the same type of thing around the world. And that’s, you know, one of the cool things about how literacy has shot up in the last 50 or 100 years — is that that spark of “Oh, I’m just going to take what I’ve learned about HAM radios and apply it to medical fields,” or “I’m going to take what I’ve learned about woodworking and apply it to orthopedic surgery”. That’s happening all the time. And then our duty is to find those innovations and nurture them and actually have them come to fruition. You know, only a small percentage of those innovations are ever actually used. But I think it is useful to that [innovation] comes from unexpected places and it doesn’t necessarily come from the A-student, or it doesn’t necessarily come from the top consulting firm, or it doesn’t necessarily come from those expected sources. [Seeing innovation that way] will do a better job of creating systems that respond to what our needs are. So, yeah, you can have larger, other changes that come from our economy —  that comes from political changes. But this small incremental change, I think, adds up to as much or more of an impact than the sweeping political or economic changes that maybe change things for 10, or 15 or 20 years. Because it’s unceasing — it’s completely dispersed across society. So yeah, assuming there’s no either/or, I think it doesn’t replace those larger social discussions or political discussions or decisions we make as a society.

But in the meantime, there’s, you know, thousands of people working in every sector that are trying to get rid of useless stuff and make something better. There’s an ad for — I don’t know if it’s Chrysler or Ford or something  —  in 2003-2004, where it had a cartoon picture of a combustion engine, and the song was: “Hate something, change something, hate something, change something, make something better”. It was this really cute song about how it’s those things that you don’t understand, you don’t like, make the world better. You know, how can you actually go in and replace them? Or change them, how they work. Innovation, I think, is much driven by hatred of bad systems as much as it is by something that is everything positive.

That’s interesting. Because you don’t think about social innovators as hateful people but there’s an intolerance there.

Lenczner: Oh my goodness, sure! Your frustration — being so frustrated and, like, getting out of bed because you’re like “Argh, I’m so annoyed that we do things this way because it’s such a waste of our energy.”

[Outro Theme Song]

Thank you for listening. My name is Scott Baker, and this is the Countless Rebellions Podcast brought to you by the McConnell Foundation. To hear more, be sure to check out the other episodes. And if you heard something interesting, share it with someone whom you think might like it. Countless Rebellions is produced by Adjacent Possibilities in collaboration with Brothers DePaul. To learn more about the McConnell Foundation and the work of their grantees, visit