Big data and the voluntary sector: sharing is caring

Transparency, openness, personalised services, policy making, privacy and user protection are all terms that are often used when talking about data. But what do they really mean?

Big data is the big hype these days and data collected and released by government often finds itself in the spotlight. It can be hard to follow all the latest developments when it comes to data and how it’s used across the public sector.

I recently attended the Data for Policy conference which brings together data producers, publishers, users and researchers to discuss the challenges and opportunities of the data revolution.

The private and public sectors were well represented, but there weren’t many voluntary sector delegates. This got me thinking about issues around open/big data and how it relates to the voluntary sector.

Data and public policy

Investigating the links between policies, interventions and outcomes is a complex process that requires carefully planned research and reliable evidence. It is also not a new concept. Evidence-based policy making precedes big data by several decades. However, in the era of such abundant information, new opportunities have arisen.

The opening up of increasingly more datasets by government departments is a major step in this direction. It provides researchers and policy makers with the necessary material to test theories and evaluate existing policies against hard evidence. Most importantly, it allows anyone to do it and does not restrict the access to select individuals or institutions.

Here at NCVO, the research team uses data from the Charity Commission, the ONS and the UK Data Service to draw a comprehensive picture of the scope of the voluntary sector. The results are published annually as the UK Civil Society Almanac and are intended primarily for use by policy makers.

Still, a great amount of useful data on charity finances remains missing, incomplete or in a poor format, rendering the process extremely cumbersome. The absence of good quality, machine-readable data allows for only a tiny sample, particularly of small and medium sized charities, to be taken into account.

Government data is only part of the picture

Charities, often at the frontline of service provision, are in an excellent position to collect and release data related to their own finances as well as their operations, such as numbers and breakdown of beneficiaries and volunteers they work with. A great example is the data released by the Trussel Trust about the foodbanks they run.

This is an opportunity for charities to:

  • lead the way by becoming more transparent
  • showcase the value of their work and the need for what they do.

Combined with local authority and government data, this evidence can enable policy makers to better assess specific, often multifaceted social issues.

Sharing data can improve services

Not all data should be open, and this is quite a sensitive topic given the amount of personal information collected on individuals by governments and private companies alike.

Privacy and data security are political and often technical issues that need addressing. But, there is also huge potential for leveraging personal data to facilitate targeted service delivery and improved outcomes.

As social policies are generally implemented with a top-down approach, the state can be unaware of the actual impact of interventions on the lives of individuals and families while many, often the most vulnerable, remain out of reach.

A local council may, for example, seek to identify citizens at risk of winter-related hospitalisations and death. Charities that work directly with the elderly, tackle homelessness or substance abuse are in the best position to securely share data and enable local government to take preventative action.

Brave attempts have been made

With technical help and encouragement by data science volunteers via DataKind UK, two charities, St Mungo’s Broadway and Citizens Advice, have linked up their data with the aim to investigate early signs of people at risk of becoming homeless.

Culture and tools

Still, most data collected by charities often doesn’t get shared between their own departments, let alone other charities or government agencies. This is a result of both lack of data culture but also, crucially, lack of data infrastructure.

Although free and open source data munging software exists in abundance, skills are harder to come by. Lower income charities would be better off seeking assistance through charities like DataKind UK rather than going at it themselves.

Data sharing and linking agreements between government and charities can only work on the basis of trust and strictly defined protocols. Charities will want to know that sharing data with government will result in evidence being taken into account for the intended purpose, and that it is not dismissed if it should turn out to be politically damaging.

Risk and trust

Individuals are also weary of the possible pitfalls of having their personal data shared with private as well as public institutions, as evidenced in a recent Royal Statistical Society and Ipsos Mori research. Trust in data usage tends to be lower than overall trust in most organisations. Although charities rank better than the British Government and Local Authorities they are still trusted less than the top-ranking NHS. This is a trust charities need to work for and win back.

This entry was posted in Research. Bookmark the permalink.

Like this? Read more

Maria was research assistant at NCVO where she worked on the Civil Society Almanac and other data-related projects.

Comments are closed.