Code for a Better World: How Nike went from flirting with the idea of open data to creating a fellowship with Code for America

This is the story of Nike, open data, and Code for a Better World Fellowship. I’m telling it in hopes that more people—and hopefully better storytellers—will start talking about it.

Portland is an amazing place. A small town of sorts. Where interesting things manage to happen because of the connections, the openness, and the passion for collaboration that exists here. But that’s not always obvious. So I wanted to try to make it a little more obvious by sharing one such experience.

It’s a story about how some of the Portland tech community and sustainability community recently had the opportunity to collaborate with one of the largest businesses in the world and one of the most successful private advertising agencies in the world—all in the name of openness and open data.

This is that story.

First off, I’ll admit I’ve been dragging my feet a bit on this post. It’s been a difficult one to write. Mostly because I’m so close to it. And so my usual flippancy may be a bit off. But I’m hoping I can capture at least a small part of what happened. Because it really is a great story. I’m just not the best storyteller to tell it.

And honestly, I’m utterly shocked that more people aren’t talking about it.

So here we go. This is the story of Nike, open data, Code for America, and Code for a Better World Fellowship. I’m telling it in hopes that more people—and hopefully better storytellers—will start talking about it.

(It’s a doozy. So you might want to grab a beverage.)

It all started so simply

Hannah Jones, Vice President of Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike—you know, that little sports apparel company in Beaverton—had landed a speaking gig at SXSW. And a solo gig at that. Not a panel. And you realize that that, my techie friend, is a pretty coveted speaking slot.

Hannah was headed to SXSW to talk about how Nike was constantly exploring ways to open up its business. Like the GreenXchange, a program through which Nike had opened up more than 300 patents under Creative Commons so that others could benefit from their intellectual property surrounding sustainable materials. How they recognized the need to be more open.

The need has never been greater than it is today for action to be taken on separating consumption from the use of natural resources if we are all to thrive in a future sustainable economy. Nike believes that design, innovation and a commitment to open source data and collaboration will help fast track the work needed to architect a sustainable roadmap. This session will explore the internal and external pressures that are creating a platform for Nike to start a conversation with the design and development community around the value and application of intellectual property and data to help find solutions to some of the most intractable sustainability problems.

But what about open data? What should she say about that? Hannah’s Sustainable Business and Innovation group had be exploring the concepts of open data and transparency. But they hadn’t quite figured out the best way to embrace that openness. Or how to begin the journey toward opening up their data.

So they looked for some additional guidance.

Enter Wieden+Kennedy

Hannah and her team raised the open data question with their communications team from Wieden+Kennedy. Because… well, because that’s what you do with communications teams. I think.

After some discussion, they decided that the best route would be to tap into PIE, a project that W+K had started for this very purpose. To connect with the tech startup and open source communities in Portland. And to collaborate with W+K on these types of things.

And this is where I get to jump into the story, having been part of PIE since its founding. So enter narrator, stage left.

So we—W+K and PIE—got approached with a particularly juicy problem: How should Nike go about opening up some of its data? And so we came up with the only reasonable answer we could. We realized that we didn’t know all of the answers. But we did know a lot of smart people in Portland who might.

So we decided to ask the Portland tech community—which was both a microcosm of the broader tech community and also undeniably well phrased in the practice of being open and collaborative—if they would be willing to join in the conversation.

Good news. They were.

I went to an unconference and a hackathon broke out

You know Portland. Portland loves the camps. Camp camp campity camp.

So after some initial consultation, Nike, W+K, and PIE decided that the best course would be to get everyone in a room and hold an unconference—allowing Nike to open up to a small group of developers and open source types—to gauge how Nike could and should go about solving this dilemma.

It would be kind of like a mini-micro-SXSW.

So that’s what they did. Here’s how Justin Houk of Programmable Web—a participant in the unconference—described what happened.

Early in March Nike’s Sustainable Business and Innovation Team held a one day unconference on opening up its data in Portland, Oregon. The conference was a first attempt at engaging civic minded coders to find out what they might be able to do with data covering product materials, factory locations, carbon footprints, water use and more. Nike was also looking for input on what other types of data coders would find interesting and useful. The unconference quickly evolved into coding Nike data into live mashups and brainstorming about many possible applications.

For one Saturday, it was quite an experience. A little bit of Portland magic. And collaboration. And introducing a group of folks to the idea of meeting without an agenda. And introducing another group of folks to the fact that corporations can be thoughtful and meaningful.

Lots of good thinking. Lots of good conversation. And yes, even a little bit of hacking.

Talk is cheap

So Nike talked to W+K who talked to PIE who talked to the Portland tech community. And they all got together in a room to chat about open data, its potential, and possible next steps for Nike.

What a happy story, right? Well, yeah. It is. Except it doesn’t end there. Not by a long shot.

You see, it turns out that one of the participants whom Portland open source proponent Selena Deckelmann suggested for the unconference was Max Ogden. You remember Max right? He’s the guy who came up with PDX API during the inaugural CivicApps competition. So that people could build apps more easily.

And that project happened to land Max another gig. A fellowship with Code for America, an non-profit organization founded specifically to help governments and municipalities deal with the whole open data thing.

And Max was awesome during the unconference. To put it lightly.

So awesome in fact, that it got the Nike folks to thinking. “How do we get ourselves a Max for our open data program?” I mean, Nike is a bigger entity than most governments. So it only makes sense.

But instead of just stroking their proverbial chins, staring into space, and asking that question to no one, they decided to ask someone. Specifically, the folks at Code for America.

What if, the team theorized, Nike established a fellowship with Code for America—similar to Max’s fellowship—that helped Nike deal with its immediate open data needs, ongoing community management, and figuring out its future in the world of open data?

Well, instead of just asking. They just did it.

Code for a Better World Fellowship

Now is the point where you enter the story. Or where you could enter. Do you want to help Nike open up its data? Do you want to be involved in one of the most innovative initiatives around?

Well, is this you?

At Nike we know tomorrow’s world will be radically different from today’s. To thrive in a world where resources are constrained, where people and governments and systems are fully connected, where sustainability is an imperative, not a choice, where transparency is requisite, we believe we need innovation. Disruptive, radical, jaw-dropping innovation. Innovation we cannot imagine. That kind of innovation is not going to come only from within. It will require the best of what we’ve got, along with unlikely partnerships, collaborations and open innovation.

We believe that data and technology will be key to unleashing new innovations.

The ideal candidate will be part developer/programmer, part researcher, part designer, part business analyst. He or she will have demonstrated expert experience with databases, programming in multiple languages, in visual design and with statistics. He or she will have an understanding of the existing open data communities and networks of visual designers and researchers who love data. He or she will be comfortable blazing new ground, working with lots of unknowns and collaborating with many different types of people. He or she will be interested in and inspired by the desire to change the world and captivated by the potential of building on Nike’s experience and reach in bringing about a better world.

Sound interesting? You’re damn tootin’ it does. So get your butt in gear and apply for the Code for a Better World Fellowship.

Open source begets open government begets open corporations

And while Nike is leading the charge—and is laudably forward thinking–this was bound to happen. I just happen to think that’s it’s pretty damn awesome that it happened right here in Portland.

You see, Nike’s effort is just the next reasonable and evolutionary step in the world of open stuff. First software went open. And the Web only furthered that. Then governments went open. Now, companies—private and public—are starting to consider the benefits of putting some of their data out in the open.

It just makes sense. Especially when many of these public companies have revenues that are larger than the gross national products of many countries. And there are a number of people starting to think this way about business and open data.

We know that better information makes better markets. Lack of access to information about demand and supply makes it difficult for both suppliers and traders to plan, economise and improve their activities.

Open data offers the prospect of instant connectivity between partners, as in open supply chains, where businesses source from places they might never have considered or even suspected could be a source. Open data can reduce integration costs, improve transparency and harness the innovation of others. If you release your data then others will develop applications that make best use of it – providing new services that benefit you directly, like all of those free travel apps that the travel companies didn’t have to write, but which nevertheless drive people onto the transportation network.

So while this may seem radical or innovative now, it’s going to seem like everyday common sense soon.

Just do it, indeed

And so, Nike Better World moved into the world of open data. With both feet. And in the spirit of their inimitable tag line, they just did it.

And all of this amazing work? It all happened over the course of a couple of weeks time. From first discussion about open data to the establishment of the fellowship.

But it couldn’t have happened without the thoughtful people from Nike. Without the guidance of W+K. And without the magic that is the Portland tech community.

And I’m convinced that it couldn’t have happened in many other places. I’m convinced that Portland is the foundation of the story.

And the story is far from over. If you’ve got the right skills, I’d suggest you get involved. Because there’s something amazing and interesting happening here. And I can’t quite put my finger on it. But something tells me this is much like the moment that Bill Bowerman started pouring rubber into his waffle iron.

I don’t want you to miss out on the rest of the story. So take a sec and apply for the Code for a Better World Fellowship. So I can say that I knew you when.

For more information, visit the Nike Better World and listen to the audio from Hannah’s SXSW 2011 presentation.

  1. […] all part of the Nike Better World open data project, a pursuit that begin last year with a bunch of hackers that resulted in Nike hiring Ward […]

  2. […] Ward Cunningham, who developed the first wiki is the chief technology officer for CitizenGlobal. He is Nike’s first Code for a Better World Fellow. […]

  3. […] Code for a Better World: How Nike went from flirting with the idea of open data to creating a fellow… […]

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  5. I know who Nike’s fellow is. I think it’s a great choice. But where is the announcement? I’m cool with under the radar and all of that to a point but…

  6. […] data on many fronts, and its Sustainability & Innovation team realized that this data could be open-sourced and mined to help the industry as a whole better understand its impacts and prepare for future […]

  7. Darragh – That’s part of the reasoning behind establishing the fellowship, to help facilitate the release of that data.

    In other news, more on the project in Forbes:


  8. Sounds cool, but did they actually release any open data or code to the wider world?

  9. Thanks, Ginevra! I was really happy to be a small part of this whole thing.

  10. Excellent post – and great work on bringing the right people together. I’m stoked to see where this goes.

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