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Data doesn’t byte

Open data was high on the agenda at the G8 summit this week, with all eight countries signing the Open Data Chartera commitment to open up government datasets. This is a great step forward in making government more accountable—and its datasets about us more accessible. But how can this be used by the third sector?

First, let’s start with a few definitions so we’re all on the same page: Open data is data that is freely available and accessible for use. For example, data sets on living standards or the uptake of breastfeeding in the UK can be downloaded from the gov.uk website and used by anyone. For finer detail, Nominet Trust have produced a clear and comprehensive review of Open Data and Charities.

Secondly there is big data— data which is generated in huge quantities through our use of technology. It can come from social networks, mobile phones, GPS signals, and through more structured databases, including police recording systems and patient health datasets that may require powerful processing technology to make sense of that data. At NPC we positively encourage funders, charities and community organisations to embrace data so that they can critically evaluate what they do and therefore understand their impact.

There are excellent examples of charities using open data to gain deeper knowledge of their services. Barnsley Hospice discovered through utilising local authority data that they needed to increase the delivery of services in more deprived areas, and they were also able to better target their marketing material. But if this implied talk of maths and data linkage seems out of your reach—and Iona Joy sympathises—then help is at hand. The internet has a number of freely available resources to help increase your data skills. There’s the Open Knowledge Foundation’s school of data and statistics, and data analysis courses taught by academics on Coursera, for example. Or you might prefer to contact DataKind (and other organisations Iona mentions) and hand over your data to pro bono analysts to do the work for you.

The UK government is at the forefront of the open data agenda, producing the Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential, and recently responding positively to calls for more open data from the Shakespeare review and for more data linkage across government departments  by the Administrative Data Taskforce. Open and big data usage is set to increase, and the third sector can not afford to be left behind. James Noble recently participated in a Guardian online discussion where it was agreed by all that there is significant value for charities and the voluntary sector to actively participate in using data to increase understanding of their services.

At NPC, we are actively working on opening up datasets for third sector use. We have worked with the Ministry of Justice to develop the Justice Data Lab, a free resource that enables organisations working with offenders to receive information on their impact on recidivism compared to a comparable group. James Noble is managing a project for the National Offender Management Service to help charities providing reoffender rehabilitation to get the most from their use of evidence. And I am currently looking at how other government datasets can be similarly opened up, particularly in areas that affect the homeless.

If you have any thoughts about what NPC should try to open up next, or would like more information about the Justice Data Lab, please do get in touch—I would be happy to take your call.

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