Open Data and the voluntary sector, revisited

I posted on the topic of Open Data and the voluntary sector earlier today, and I’m very grateful for the time people have taken to respond. I thought I’d jot down a response to their response in the hope of continuing the conversation.

My original post boiled down to 4 propositions:

  1. Given the novelty of Open Data in the public sector, I didn’t think people would be that interested in voluntary sector Open Data.
  2. The motivation for public sector organisations to publish their data (transparency) doesn’t necessarily hold for why a voluntary sector organisation would publish their data.
  3. The power dynamic between voluntary sector organisations and their funders means that Open Data could be used as a resource for undermining the voluntary sector.
  4. Voluntary sector organisations are extremely well placed to benefit from the publication of Open Data by public agencies.

On point 1, my commenters rightly note that I’m plain wrong: there are plenty of people out there who are interested in voluntary sector data! This is reassuring, and hints to me of the seriousness with which the voluntary sector quite rightly should be taken (even if it’s work isn’t always valued as it should be).

On point 2, my implication is that voluntary sector organisations may not wish to supply their data. My commenters are entirely right to summarise that, actually, some do and most want to, and that the motivations for this are in building open and honest relationships with key stakeholders, including other voluntary organisations, with funders, and with donors.

I think this is right to a point, but there’s still a note of caution here. The caution stems from two points: (1) the vast majority of local authorities are publishing Open Data; the same isn’t true of voluntary sector organisations; and (2) if a local authority publishes its data, it loses no competitive advantage; again, this isn’t necessarily true of voluntary sector organisations.

As such, my solution is to say there’s safety in numbers. If all voluntary sector organisations published their data openly, then everyone starts from the same point and one organisation isn’t at a disadvantage for doing what is obviously the right thing (i.e. publishing their data). This would solve the second point.

But being realistic about this, moving to every voluntary sector organisation publishing their data inevitably means a few leading the way. In this situation, I suspect it’s the case that it’s precisely those organisations who see the value in publishing their data and go ahead and do it that are the ones that do well anyway. Thus, the reality of them publishing their data is that any impact on their competitiveness is minimised since their forward-thinking nature more than compensates for any advantage other organisations gain from the data. (I’m not sure if this holds as much when private sector organisations are competing against voluntary sector organisations.)

The argument against point 3 is persuasive: any organisation should be good at understanding where things go wrong, communicate that with the relevant stakeholders, and then do something about it. Open Data is simply the messenger. And anyway, relevant data is probably doing back to the funder through monitoring arrangements – the question here is more one of whether the data goes wider. There’s also the public benefit argument that says charities in particular should be transparent in order to maintain their relative positions of trust as charities.

Point 4 is straightforward, since everyone agreed.

It led, though, to the suggestion that I think Open Data is only for the public sector. I don’t – I think it’s for anyone involved in the business of public service.

But it was interesting to read back my post and notice just how skeptical it was about Open Data for the voluntary sector, and it was quite right that my commenters picked me up on it.

Given that I am in complete support of Open Data for the voluntary sector and beyond, any thoughts people have on why I was skeptical would therefore be appreciated…


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

6 thoughts on “Open Data and the voluntary sector, revisited”

  1. I’m going to blaspheme a little bit, I love open data, but I’m not sure it is going to have a transformative effect on the sector for a while yet. (Sorry @kanedr)
    Point 2 – Bucket loads of data is already published by the charity commission. This dataset is already licensed for re-use by a number of organisations from Guidestar, CaritasData and CAF and the NCVO for research. It is also available to view on the CharityCommission website. Eventually this data will be ‘open’ so everyone can re-used and compared more easily, but the fact that it is already published is significant.
    While all charities should constantly scrutinise all aspects of their performance, and open data could help them to benchmark against similar charities. Point 3 is definitely a threat. The obvious problem is that donors (and newsnight /panorama) types will focus on fundraising and marketing costs and spread FUD about “waste.”
    The new fundraising intermediary is a perfect example of doing this badly. They publish in big numbers “direct charitable expenditure” which is SORP charitable expenditure as a proportion of total expenditure.
    This is daft – I wouldn’t choose car insurance by ranking companies by how much they spend each year minus their advertising costs and their audit fee.
    So we need more data to make a meaningful comparison. What we want to compare are the outcomes. And most charities are not even measuring their outcomes at all, let alone in a standard measurable way.
    And you are right – this would only benefit the sector if everyone did it together. So it would make sense for it to be done through the Charity Commission. And given that the current agenda is about cutting red tape and costs I think we are light years away!

  2. Serious point re the Charity Commission, who from my experience are staffed by good people.
    I reckon the Open data agenda offers them a real chance to remodel what they do around collecting information, in much the same way as I responded to Rich’s previous post about our role as researchers.
    So, maybe the Commission push even harder at online filing machine readable data; make the API for the register available; and maybe some guidance on ratios so that an ‘army of armchair auditors’ can not just hold charities to account, but maybe even help them make better decisions about resource allocation. Should we develop the equivalent of a form 990? There was a wiki-based alternative form 990 I seem to remember.
    The Commission is now consulting on its future as it struggles with a reduced budget. If there is one positive action to come from this discussion it should be that all the people who understand this stuff should try and pull together ideas and recommendations for the Commission.
    Any volunteers?

  3. Good to see this – I was pushing for the sector to take the lead on this years ago! There is always a danger that the public sector sets its data standards and voluntary organisations then have to conform, potentially losing major benefits that they might have got from creating data formats which work for them. This after all is a common complaint about having to meet funder reporting requirements at present.

  4. Reblogged this on VCSScamp and commented:
    A post about Open Data and the voluntary sector from 2010 – good to see people were thinking about our role in relation to open data a few years ago, and longer if you read the comments!

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