Open Data for Charities – opportunities and roadblocks

Warning: Liveblogging – prone to error, inaccuracy, and howling affronts to grammar. This post will be improved over the course of a few days.


A session about use of open data by charities, inspired by the Data for Good report from Nesta.

Tracey Gyateng from the NPC is helping charities measure the work they do. How do they know, for example, if offenders stop offending after their work? Can government datasets help that? They think so, and are working on systems to help do that.

They also work with charities to open their eyes to the potential of data. Some of the rhetoric is around making money from data – but it can be used for charities to improve the well-being of people.

Many charities don’t know much about open data – or have the understanding to know how to release or access it.

360 Giving – an emerging data standard for grants. Policies are beginning to be published on Github to allow people to access them more.

Breaks in the data supply chain

Like the food supply chain, the data supply chain is broken. There’s no opportunity to thank the farmer that grew the supermarket food you bought. The same is true of the data flow in charities. You give to Comic Relief or the like, and there’s little feedback of what your money ends up doing, bar the few the film for the following year. We can engage the citizens that volunteer and donate more.

80% of charties have less than £100,000 in income – so it’s important to keep focused on that.

Mobile sensor feeds could be useful – combining sensor data and open data could be very useful. There are various projects underway on that.

Even experience with data is not as much of an advantage as you might think – problems with formats and understanding its nature can be difficult.

Charities: big and small

Are the challenges of open data for small charities and big charities different? One participant thought so, another suggested that if big charities lead, small charities can follow from that. But the University of Southampton research suggests that for small charities it’s much more about delivery than engagement.

Citizens Advice has had a lot of help from DataKind to help analyse their resources. They’ve produced some useful models, that smaller charities could use.

Local organisations often don’t think they have the time or organisation to collect data other than that required by contracts or law. As organisations, you do have data and information about your area that you could be sharing. The biggest problem is breaking the barrier of the procurement mindset: they are procured for that service and that service alone.

It would be great if the bigger organisations took on this modelling and passed it down the chain. So many of the small organisers are scared of the big funders and doing things they weren’t paid for.

Enhancing traceability through contracts

In the UK, the Department for International Development have said that everyone who has a contract with them must publish data on that contract – and that’s led to some really good data on the traceability issues, about where the funds are coming from and where they’re going to. There’s some great data coming rom smaller organisations, who have less data to look after.

On attendee asked if there is anyone looking at small charities working together. Is there a good case study of this happening well?

Some research suggests that good opportunities are:

  1. Using open data to do more needs analysis – like identifying geographic areas being missed. Smaller charities don’t have the analytical skills to turn around the data – they need partnerships with data scientists
  2. Improving their services through their own data sets – everything from marketing, outreach to funding.
  3. Individual data is not likely to be open data. You can do it through data requests, but it’s complicated, and there are still safeguarding issues. The justice datalab through the Ministry of Justice allows names to submitted to the DoJ that allows cohort level analysis of reoffending rate, and match that against comparable cohorts. You don’t get the data back – but you do get the analysis. That’s been running for two years. The reports are public and therefore transparent.

Some charities are nervous of this sort of feedback – what if there’s a negative result? But others are embracing it because even a negative result allows them to improve what they do. No-one really wants to reveal their cards about how they’re doing – but it makes a difference.

Credibility and Authority in data

Just having data isn’t enough – you have to know it’s good. There’s a danger in the system being gamified – if people figure out how to manipulate things for a positive-looking outcome. Some people have started using Google Docs for funding processes, so all the information along the process is captured transparently.

Despite all this, negative impacts are still problematic – because you just won’t get funding as a result, it’s suggested. The solution might be better education for funders – a negative impact is still an impact.

Data lives on a continuum of trust. The more open you are about the provenance, the more useful the data is. Reproducibility is a factor, too. Open working on the data provides validation, which provides reassurance.

NPC is holding an event on 3rd of March that will explore many of these issues: *State of the Sector 2015: Where next for the data revolution?

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