#opendata in the Voluntary Sector: ecdp’s example

(I’m afraid this is a bit rambling and incoherent, but (a) it’s not quite the end of a long day, and (b) I wanted to get this down. Please allow for both (a) and (b) when reading…)

I’ve been interested in Open Data for the past few months, and have hosted (what I think is) an interesting discussion on the topic and how it applies to the Voluntary & Community Sector (VCS) here and here. There’s also a really interesting discussion on charities, public services and releasing data on the excellent Open Local Data Blog.

Because I happen to be pretty senior in my role in a disability organisation in the VCS, I’m in the fortunate position that I actually got to do something about it. Thus, today my organisation (ecdp) shared its Open Data work. There you can find an overview of what it is, our Performance Dashboard since July 2009, copies of our Management Board papers stretching back to August 2007 and our Annual Reports going back to 2004/05.

I’ve also written an overview paper on Transparency and Open data, which is embedded at the bottom of this post.

Talking over the last few weeks and today with friends and people who actually know what they’re on about (e.g. @karlwilding, @kanedr, @citizensheep, @loulouk, @Paul_Clarke), there are numerous interesting questions and debates around Open Data and the VCS that remained undefined and unanswered. Below, based on my/ecdp’s experience of this work to day, I’ve tried to capture some of them.

  • Is it really Open Data, or is it just open / transparent working? If it’s the latter, are there already good examples of VCS organisations doing this sort of thing (like publishing their Management Board papers and exposing their decision-making process) or not?
  • If it’s not Open Data but it’s still data, what is it? Does it hold value to other people? (This is a version of a question I’ve posed before. I think the answer is yes, but it still seems to be something to be explored.)
  • I’m working on the assumption that VCS organisations, as deliverers of public services under contract to public bodies, will need to publish the relevant data. Is this actually true? If so, will the same hold for non-VCS organisations such as private businesses, social enterprises and employee-owned organisations? If not, on what basis do the exemptions work?
  • In line with the above, can a VCS organisation publish its contract monitoring arrangements and reports with a public body? I’d argue yes, but what if there’s a clash between the culture of a public body and a VCS organisation?
  • Is a VCS organisation that publishes its data openly now essentially committing competitive suicide (assuming the data is that sort of data)?

On a very practical level, who else out there in the VCS has shared any of their data – no matter how little, or how not-quite-open-data it may be – that they’d be happy to tell us about?

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, here are a few lessons or thoughts I had along the way of getting to the point where we’ve published what we have at ecdp today.

  • Strategic and operational context is vital in understanding and explaining why a VCS organisation needs to engage with the Open Data and transparency agenda
  • Open Data and transparency has been as much a useful driver internally as it has externally
  • It’s important to ensure all staff have the opportunity to see what’s being published externally before it is done so. This is just a motivation/belonging point rather than anything sinister about not revealing too much. Expecting staff to get the data at the same time as anyone externally risks undervaluing their role in the organisation
  • I think some public bodies can be thought of as intransigent or unwilling when it comes to things like Open Data and Transparency. The same can equally hold for VCS organisations
  • Expect colleagues to raise issues of risk, credibility and accuracy as a reason for not doing this, and have your arguments lined up. This said, as with anything else, engage your key decision makers (including relevant Trustees) to make sure they know the benefits, risks and reasons for doing this
  • Embed the process for creating the data in your day-to-day processes. Having this as an additional piece of work, especially in a VCS organisation, does not and will not go down well
  • There are several unintended benefits of driving Open Data and transparency in a (VCS) organisation, including strengthening governance arrangements, increasing cross-team collaboration, focusing on what matters rather than just measuring, and lifting everyone’s heads up to think about the outside world as well as just the immediacy of day-to-day work.

There are probably loads more, but hope that gives a flavour of the types of thoughts and issues going round my head over the last few days (on Open Data, at least).

Would be really interested in people’s views on this generally, the specifics of what ecdp has done and whether it’s any good (and how it can be improved).

Thanks to everyone – including those mentioned above – who have inspired or shaped this work. Let’s just hope a few other people from the VCS follow in this direction…