Open Data and the voluntary sector

Apropos of nothing, I tweeted a series of thoughts late last week on Open Data and the voluntary sector and thought I’d expand slightly on those thoughts here.

I’m not hopeful at this point in time as to whether the voluntary sector is well-placed to contribute towards the drive to Open Data. It’s well known that generating management information or evidence – of output, of outcome, of impact – is not the strongest trait of the voluntary sector, so the jump to publishing it in an open format feels like running before walking.

Even then, if a voluntary sector organisation can publish its data, various questions arise.

1. Would anyone be interested in a voluntary sector organsiation’s data? Given the fun and games – as well as the novelty – of having public sector data, it seems more likely to me that people will want to play with the public sector data being made available before looking at anything the voluntary sector produces.

2. Would voluntary sector organisations want to provide their data for others to look at? By others, I mean fellow voluntary sector organisations and private sector organisations, both of which represent potential competitors. The drive for public sector organsations to publish their data is transparency: does the same motivation hold for voluntary sector organisations? I’m not sure it does.

3. Similar to the point above, the power relationship between local authorities and voluntary sector organisations could mean that the latter may not be willing to publish their “real” data, since it could reveal either (a) things aren’t going as well as they say, or (b) things are going better than they say when it comes to spend versus grant / service level agreement / contract value, which creates problems in itself.

On the other hand, there’s the potential benefit that voluntary sector organisations can gain from using Open Data made available by public organisations. I think the voluntary sector is ideally placed – as agile, responsive and nimble organisations – to make the most of Open Data provided by the public sector. Sure, there are questions of technical know-how, but these seem relatively easy to overcome given the benefits that could accrue.

(As ever, others got to this far quicker, far better and with far more articulation than me – see, for example, this excellent post from David Kane at NCVO. Some of my points hopefully complement those David makes. Please do leave any comments / thoughts etc. below.)


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

5 thoughts on “Open Data and the voluntary sector”

  1. Rich – really useful contribution to the open data debate, and you’re rightly skeptical.
    You’re completely right that voluntary organisations are ideally placed to gain from the open data produced by government. I’d like to think that data on demographic changes, social mobility could be used by organisations to target their services better.
    To take your 3 questions:
    1. Would anyone be interested in a voluntary sector organisation’s data?
    Well I would for a start! – As a researcher into the voluntary sector in general the more we know about their operations the better. We can learn what works well, what doesn’t.
    But as well as obsessive researchers like me, I think there are plenty of other uses for voluntary sector produced data. If you accept the premise that voluntary organisations are uniquely placed to reach the “hard-to-reach” people, then they are by definition going to know more about those people. If they share that information (anonymised of course) – it might help other charities and local authorities to target their services.
    2. Would voluntary sector organisations want to provide their data for others to look at?
    I think they would (or should anyway). An example: the National Biodiversity Network. A group of voluntary sector and public bodies who share their data on where species are located within the UK. The data they share is greater than the sum of its parts – the RSPB (who told me about this site) can find out where birds they are interested in are located, not just in their sites but across the country.
    3. The power relationship
    This is the key one, and it’s a classic case of idealism vs pragmatism. The argument runs that voluntary organisations should be open about their successes and failures – what’s going well, what’s not worked at all – and most of all what their impact is (cf New Philanthropy Capital).
    While it sounds mad to say “we’ve failed” in the open – I’ve heard it said that a charity has never lost funding by saying “this isn’t working how we expected”. By being honest about your work, and open about how successful it is, you build a productive relationship with funders. But this requires trust and honesty on both sides.
    This is more contentious: you could also argue that particularly for public service contracts (but also for charities as a whole) charities are by definition providing a public benefit, and they have a responsibility therefore be open about their benefit to the community in return for the benefits (both monetary and status) they get from being a charity.
    Long comment but hope it adds something! We (NCVO) are running a session on this at our Annual Conference in March – tickets still available if you’re around (sorry for shameless plug!).

  2. I’m going to paraphrase what was written in the article you referenced from David (@kanedr), to respond to some of your questions.
    Firstly, who wants open data? Although, others like David are surely better placed than I to provide first-hand accounts of the needs expressed to them by a measurable population of charities, I would imagine that the following are true:
    Charity managers want it: to identify the “need of their beneficiaries – who needs their services most and where they are located.” They may want to ensure they are ready to respond to prospective government demands to produce and share data as part of government contracts.
    Infrastructure organisations want open third sector data: “organisations like New Philanthropy Capital and NCVO’s own Strategy and Impact unit stress the need for charities to demonstrate the impact that their services have – opening their data can help to do this.”
    Donors and Grantors want it: to see that the money they give is spent how they were told it would be.
    Fundraisers and Grant-chasers want it: “to boost their campaigns and lobby government for lobby for better targeting of services.”
    Researchers want it, because they value the ability to analyse and identify trends across a broad and comprehensive dataset for their employees/funders.
    Government wants it: evidence informs decision making to provide cost savings.
    Volunteers want it, to collaborate with others who shared their interests.
    Beneficiaries want it: open data means others now know about their unmet needs and can support them through the third sector.
    Social entrepreneurs want it: because they are interested and passionate about the third sector and open data. They will find themselves in high demand because of reference skill shortages “to create, access and use open data”.
    ‘Outside organisations’ want it so that they can be compensated for serving up better services and products to support charities in achieving their objects.
    Secondly, you have asked if voluntary sector organisations are motivated to be transparent. Yes, they are. Primarily, they operated by maintaining the trust of their donors and conveying this to prospective donors. Open data an extension of their activities to maintain this trust.
    If charities don’t want to be judged to be failing, by the metrics that you mention “spend versus grant / service level agreement / contract value” then they should look to address these in the way that they operate, making choices as they see fit to satisfy their stakeholders. Preventing donors from judging which organisations they want to give to, by being opaque with the figures, is a choice that charities will be evaluated on as others behave more transparently.
    Overall, your comments reveal a desire to leave the public sector to ‘do it’. Discussion on merits of that mode of thinking is subject to a more political domain, which I shall pass over here, without comment. My reading of David’s article gives me a clear impression that “Open Data and the voluntary sector” should be about charities opening up their data to government and others stakeholders, not just the other way around. Therefore, I find myself agreeing with David’s article, but with respect, not so much with yours.
    Details aside, I entirely commend your posting on the subject of “Open Data and the voluntary sector” and hope to continue a dialogue with your and David as the open third sector develops.
    Kindest regards,
    David Pidsley

  3. See also David’s follow-up post, and my posts re Open Charities.
    We’ve already started doing some interesting things, matching up lottery funding and local authority spending data with charities, pulling in their social networking detail, and also had some really excellent reuses of the data, including David Pidsley’s @NewCharity tweeter and heatmaps, and well as numerous contacts from people and organisations in the voluntary and charity sector.
    Given it’s only been going a month or so, think you can see the glimmers of how open data could make all sorts of things possible that weren’t possible before.

  4. Great blog, great comments.
    I think we are still pretty early in the adoption curve here; there is a certain amount of market making to be done (making vol orgs realise what they can do with greater access to data), whilst clearly the arena is still too technical for drive-by users such as me (there was a great blog recently about mapping public toilets that highlighted this).
    Dave talks about what we at NCVO are doing. The Open Data agenda for us is going to be an iterative process, one where we may well need to take some deep breaths as we take some risks. The research team have a vision where sharing – internally and externally – is the default. Over time, open data might refashion the role of researchers here at NCVO to become standard setters, curators, aggregators, quality controllers.
    It’s scary because it might require different skills; it might place new demands on us (people asking questions about how to use our data); and what of they find mistakes in our analysis? Data are, after all, imperfect and therefore analysis isn’t always straightforward.
    I think these are manageable risks. I strongly believe open data will strengthen those who are trying to effect social change whether they are in vol orgs or not. So the challenge for those orgs is to embrace this agenda. I’m hoping NCVO research will start to do this. I’m hopefully going to blog myself about this soon, but in the meantime I am especially grateful you’ve started this conversation.

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