Charities have a duty to use the data out there

By John Copps 16 September 2011

We live in a world surrounded by an unprecedented amount and variety of information. Data is everywhere. I think every charity has a duty to ask themselves how they can make the most of this.

A quick trawl around the internet shows that data is freely available on issues as wide-ranging as homelessness, littering, child poverty and street crime. This offers  almost every charity the potential to find new ways of creating value for beneficiaries.

If this makes your mind boggle, let me give you a simple practical example. A couple of weeks ago on this blog we posted a guest blog by data enthusiast Matt Parker. Help the Hospices, the umbrella charity for the hospice movement in the UK, was looking for a way to better understand the overlap between the need of services and the location of existing hospices.

What Matt did is to combine postcode data from Help the Hospices on its members (freely available on its website) with existing data on poverty from the government’s index of multiple deprivation (also freely available). The result was a useful google map and a simple example of what can be done when you ask the right question. For other examples, you can see the stuff done by NCVO and the Guardian.

There were virtually no barriers to doing this – if you had come up with the idea, you could have done it too, from anywhere in the world. True, there’s some technical nouse required but I’d bet that more than a fair proportion of computer literate people could work up something similar given a free afternoon. (My point is that I think the limiting factor is imagination rather than IT expertise.)

This is a very simple example but simple is where we should start. Charities should wake up and embrace the data out there. Every charity should ask themselves: what questions do I have for which data can give the answer? I bet you will have lots. It’s a chance for savvy organisations to set themselves apart.

Data might seem abstract, but the benefits aren’t. If it can help you to spend money more wisely or reach a group that otherwise wouldn’t get support then that wins the argument.

Agree or disagree? Your thoughts are welcome.