Open data and the voluntary sector

The Open Knowledge Foundation recently asked me to write a guest post on their blog, looking at the challenges and opportunities presented by open data for the voluntary sector. I’ve reproduced the post below. Thanks to Louise Brown for her input.

Here at NCVO we’ve recently started taking an interest in open data, and its implication for charities and the voluntary sector.

We know that some voluntary organisations which specialise in open data have been leading the charge – the Open Knowledge Foundation is a not-for-profit company, mySociety is a registered charity – and often the most exciting and innovative uses of open data are made by volunteers in their spare time. But we know that many voluntary organisations find it difficult to find the time and skills to develop their ICT capabilities, and can find the challenge of implementing new technologies in their organisation daunting. This is daunting not just because of the time and resources required, but also because it requires a change in organisational culture.

Our interest in open data culminated recently when the Coalition government published its paper Building the Big Society, which included five themes. The NCVO research team have looked at the evidence behind each of these themes.

The first four themes relate well to NCVO’s usual work – they talk about participation, transferring power, communities and supporting organisations – but the fifth (publish government data) was less familiar, and is a new concept to much of the voluntary and community sector.

Looking at this fifth theme, I came up with a number of opportunities and challenges that open data presents for charities and voluntary organisations:

1. Open data will give charities new ways to find and share information on the need of their beneficiaries – who needs their services most and where they are located.

The sharing of information will be key to this – it’s not just about using data that the government has opened up, but also opening your own 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.

This can create a more joined up service for users, provide cost savings and mean that organisations can meet unmet needs. But organisations need to think about how to access and manipulate this information – will it need specialist staff or volunteers? Some organisations might need outside help to be able to do this.

2. Charities will be able to use the evidence found in open data to boost their campaigns and lobby government. Voluntary sector organisations have been at the forefront of opening up data.

Providing services directly to those in need isn’t the only way that charities help the most vulnerable – their campaigning and lobbying also has a very important role in this. Open data can help charities speak truth to power, whether it’s challenging government spending or using their own data to lobby for better targeting of services. Data that charities gather themselves through their beneficiaries and communities can make the case even more forcefully, but again charities need to have the skills to be able to do this.

3. Many of the skills needed to create, access and use open data are not yet widespread in the voluntary sector. There is a cost to effectively creating and using this data, while sharing commercially sensitive data could reduce competitiveness.

This is a really important point – the uneven spread of the skills, knowledge and resources needed means that some organisations risk being left behind while others use open data to its full potential. At the moment much of work being done is by interested and passionate individuals, but there may not be enough of these to go around.

4. As open data becomes embedded in government, voluntary organisations which contract with government may be compelled to produce and share data as part of those contracts.

This is a bit hypothetical at the moment – I’ve seen no evidence of this happening in government contracts yet. But it seems possible to me that as a culture of open data becomes embedded in government, this culture informs their contracting arrangements. If this does happen, charities will need to be ready.


So how does the voluntary sector keep up with the open data revolution? Well it needs to make sure that staff and volunteers have the skills and knowledge needed to create and use open data. Charities need to learn from each other too, particularly by talking to organisations that are ahead of the game. Perhaps most importantly, examples of the power of open data will show charities how important this is.

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Avatar photo David Kane was formerly NCVO’s Senior Research Officer. He discusses open data and emerging trends in the voluntary and community sector and wider civil society.

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