Digital Corporate Citizenship


Matt Hall


September 1, 2021

To be clear, being a good digital corporate citizen is not just about doing the right thing — there is real opportunity here.

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Matt Hall, a contributing writer, gives his viewpoints in the Open is Hard series. All opinions shared are solely Matt’s and don’t necessarily reflect the position of Studio X.

I previously wrote about how 'open source is everywhere' and ended with a list of 9 behaviours and actions that an organization could promote or start doing in order to realize more value from openness. This time, I want to highlight that using, contributing to, and producing open source software is just one aspect of being a responsible and productive 'digitally transformed' organization.

To be clear, being a good digital corporate citizen is not just about doing the right thing — there is real opportunity here. One thing the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic showed us is that some organizations are more adaptable than others. It turns out that adaptability is not only a survival skill, it's a growth strategy. When the pandemic hit, my company, Agile Scientific, took its training classes online and, once things got going, we were just as busy as 2019; meanwhile, many of our competitors were furloughing staff or letting them go. The non-profit I founded, Software Underground, a new digital subsurface society, chose to take its spring hackathons and conference online last year instead of cancelling them, and found hundreds of new members in the process. It's notable, if not surprising, that the survival strategies depended on technology like virtual presence, asynchronous messaging, and live-streaming. Fluency in technology provided the adaptability.

But if technology is going to lead to the good things we want, we must wield it responsibly. Sounds reasonable, but what does it mean? Probably different things to different organizations, but here are some of the things I have in mind:

  • Having a global, inclusive outlook. Remote collaboration often means asynchronous communication. This means that anything can involve anyone — wherever they are.
  • Educating your staff and stakeholders. The technology options are overwhelming, and the new norms confusing. Organizations need to help people adapt.
  • Keeping people safe. Zoom-bombing was a big problem at the beginning of the pandemic, and proceedings were interrupted again at the EGU Assembly this year.

Looking beyond how we meet, a lot of organizations are looking at datathons, hackathons, and other new kinds of digitally powered events. This is great to see — I believe the opportunities are endless — but again, organizers must act responsibly. For example:

  • Fair terms and conditions of participation. Companies asking for open contributions to a datathon should strongly consider  releasing open data to ensure data owners and participants are sharing value. Companies should also be cautious of  grabbing expansive rights to the intellectual property of participants  — participants should be allowed to engage on fair terms, after all they are contributing their problem-solving skills. If you're a large corporation, you must understand that the legal deck is loaded in your favor.
  • Sharing things with appropriate licenses. Distributing data with restrictive licenses can limit participation , because it puts undue responsibility on licensees to avoid falling foul of the license, whether accidentally (e.g. by checking it into their code repository), or in good faith (e.g. by publishing a paper about their work).
  • Respecting people's privacy and rights. If you ask people to register for your event or website, you are now responsible for their personal data. Adopt and enforce a sound privacy policy, and make it easy for people to opt out. And of course, don't spam people and don't sell their data.

Some will try to shortcut the responsibilities; they always do. The community will notice and, though it may not stop to call transgressions out, it will quietly ignore them. The result: the event or resource doesn't attract the very people it seeks to engage, and the impact is dramatically reduced. Potentially, the whole idea of datathons or hackathons or open data is written off, even though it wasn't really given a proper chance.

So how can an organization avoid these traps and thrive in the digital community? I believe the only way is to be part of that community. Don't seek to engage it, or try to market at it — get involved in it. Here's how:

  • Show up. Not just as sponsors or speakers, but as participants and contributors. Be present, volunteer, and turn up in unexpected places. Scientists at some companies regularly show up to hackathons and other events; other organizations are conspicuous by their absence.
  • Contribute. Share what you're doing. Share your resources. And encourage your employees, members, or partners to do the same.
  • Lead. Be vocal about your vision for the future. Set examples and champion things you like. Help lend direction to the community — not to control, but to guide.

There's so much opportunity in the digital subsurface, we need as many players as possible. If we're going to see the innovations we need at the pace we want, we need the whole community to show up in a spirit of collaboration. And as always in exploration: the organizations that show up first will capture all the value.

Matt Hall is a contributing writer for Studio X and the founder of Agile Scientific, a scientific computing company that specializes in solving subsurface problems in the natural resources industries. He has a PhD in sedimentology from the University of Manchester, UK, and 20-something years’ experience in the energy industry working for Statoil (now Equinor), Landmark, and ConocoPhillips.

This article is licensed CC-BY.