Getting the most out of big data

zoe-woodZoe Wood is head of content at Idox Software Ltd. Zoe has over 10 years experience in delivering high-quality content projects, and is responsible for various aspects of operational and strategic delivery for the grants arm of Idox, in particular their funding services GRANTfinder and RESEARCHconnect.


In early 2015, NHS director, Tim Kelsey described the adoption of new technologies using big data in the NHS as a ‘moral obligation’. He argued that the NHS’s gaps in knowledge of the county’s health are so wide and so dangerous that they were putting lives at stake – and that the use of big data could rectify this.

Big data has many definitions but industry analysts Gartner define it as:

High-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight and decision making.

This isn’t just relevant to the health sector – across the board, organisations should be looking at the ways they can put big data at the forefront of their strategic planning.

Not any data – good data

The voluntary sector plays an important and often misunderstood role in our society and economy. Although we do have some data on the sector, from the NCVO Almanac; we need more data:

  • for the sector’s own use, to improve its insight and practice – ‘better performance’
  • for policymakers to guide decisions about service delivery – ‘effective deployment’
  • to help people identify and access appropriate local services – ‘greater impact’.

Whether it’s big, open, linked or even shared; what the voluntary sector needs is good data – and even more importantly, good data management.

Establish the plan

Think about the audience and what you’re trying to achieve with the data. Match the data to your aims and objectives. Establish a plan as to how the data will be used, why it will be used, where it will be used and what you’re trying to achieve. Answering these questions will allow you to use data to its best potential/effect’.

In the case of the voluntary sector, examples could include:

  • The voluntary sector provides a wide range of services – policymakers need to understand the sector’s structure and capabilities.
  • Many voluntary sector organisations gather information that could help improve the design and delivery of services – they work directly with local communities including vulnerable groups who can be reluctant to engage in formal consultations.

The next step is to use technology and approaches to understand, analyse, link and, where possible, share large complex datasets to generate new insights and improve decisions.

Manage the data

In order to get the most out of the data, it’s vital to properly manage it.

Data lifecycle

In some cases this may mean introducing a data lifecycle process. Prioritising data that’s central to organisational performance and ensuring data handling procedures are up to date.

Available tools

Making best use of available tools, such as ESRC’s Big Data Network, which is funded until 2019.

Third party solutions

There are now many solutions that can support this process and supply tools to regularly cleanse data. If big data management is central to your performance as an organisation, then this may be an investment worth making.

What next?

The ‘big data’ concept involves thinking about how managing information can help bring about better services. How can using new technology and approaches allow us to better understand, analyse, link and where possible share large complex datasets to generate new insights and improve decisions?

Whilst most of the focus has been on private sector innovation, higher education research capabilities and public sector datasets, there is a clear applicability to the voluntary sector and a real need for data about voluntary sector activities in order to demonstrate its importance and counter misunderstandings. Sharing and analysing information across the sector and beyond will only strengthen and increase the visibility of the sector.


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