Open data and charities

Tracey Gyateng, data science manager, DataKind UK, asked why so few charities are using open data or coming to events like ODCamp6; and also why open data experts are not going to talk to charities.

Because, she said, data touches charities in at least four ways:

  1. Charities produce data. For example, people who want to work with refugees may want data refugee charities hold (and government doesn’t). Of course, charities may have concerns about releasing their information; but done right, there are benefits to being able to access the information they have.
  2. There is data about the sector. Funders may want to know what charities are doing. There are official data sets in England and Scotland, but more might be done by them.
  3. There is data about society. Often, when there are discussions about big policy issues, the voice of charities representing minorities or marginalised groups is missing. Being able to find data about those organisations, or information about the sector they work in, could surface them.
  4. Data is used by charities. But they can find it very difficult to find the data they want in the huge datastores that are out there.

Her vision, she said, was to get charities involved in open data in all these areas: her question was how to do this.

Barriers and challenges

One participant asked whether there was anything unique about the charity sector. A lot of companies and other organisations, he pointed out, might have the same issues with data and open data. But Pauline Roche suggested the motivation for charities was different. Charities want to do good in the world. So their publication and use of open data would have to relate to that mission.

Other participants suggested there were practical issues that might raise barriers. Mark Braggins pointed out that charities often worked with limited budgets and with volunteers who might not have data skills. Also, they might cover very specific issues or geographic areas, and find it hard to engage with the open data community.

On funding, Pauline pointed out that the vast majority of charities have a turnover of less than a million pounds a year. Many have turnover of less than £10,000 a year. “If you have heard of them, they will be big enough to have data people. If you haven’t, they will be too small to spend time doing data analysis.”

Tracey raised a related issue. Charities that are doing data analysis are often doing it to satisfy funders; who may have a fixed idea of what the charity should be doing. This makes it more difficult for them to use data to improve of change services; particularly when funders might not support data collection and analysis in grants.

A participant in the university sector said it faced similar issues. “Funders can get it into their heads that there is a particular need, and they don’t want to hear that there isn’t.”

Some solutions

The discussion shifted towards solutions. Participants suggested:

  • Charities that want to be transparent might be leaders in open data, because it aligns with their ethos
  • That using open data should reduce costs and give charities a good story to tell about making best use of funds
  • That encouraging charities that have used open data to tell their stories might encourage others
  • That charities should appoint digital trustees to make sure data and analysis were on their agendas (although participants noted that it can be difficult to find them: and that charities also wanted more women and more younger trustees)
  • That open data and information experts might volunteer their skills (although other participants suggested that giving a charity money to spend on a data analysis service might deliver better, more consistent results)
  • That encouraging charities and digital volunteers to come to events like Open Data Camp might help with specific challenges; such as how to find and use open data
  • Also, that open data people should go to charity events to explain the concept and tell compelling stories about how it could help them.

[Session Notes]

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