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Data 4 Good

By Tracey Gyateng 2 March 2015

I have recently had a fantastic—or should I say, datatastic—time learning about a number of great initiatives relevant to the charity sector. They all involved a lot of data enthusiasts (read geeks), but don’t let that put you off; what they had to say could really revolutionise the sector.

In one week, I attended all of the following: an evening lecture at LSE discussing how big data will change the study of the social sciences; a day with Nesta hearing about projects they support that utilise data for societal good; and a weekend celebration of International Open Data Day, organised by Open Data Camp UK.

So with data coming out of my ears, what exactly did I learn?

Big data, big challenges?

Geeks get excited by big data, the common definition encompassing a number of V’s. I’ll just mention three: Variety (data comes in all shapes and forms, from pictures to 140 character tweets); Velocity (data comes in very fast eg, Amazon receives hundreds of orders per second); and Volume (datasets are massive).

The benefits of a ready pool of data that researchers can dip in and out of are potentially huge. Yet this isn’t without concern. Key challenges outlined by Professor Kenneth Benoit, and known to fans of Tim Harford, include:

  • Big data, and early analysis of big data (data science), are repeating old mistakes of correlation does not equal causation eg, a study found that using social networks is associated with divorce!
  • Big data does not mean that everyone of interest is included, which could lead to biased results.
  • Not enough is said on how qualitative data can enrich big data.
  • Ethical issues need to be addressed—do we have the consent of individuals to use this data? (The fallout from Samaritans Radar app on Twitter shows that even good intentions for using data can meet with criticism. My personal opinion is anything posted on Twitter is open for scrutiny and data usage).
  • A warning to academics that they needed to up-skill or collaborate, otherwise they could face redundancy.

Open Data, sharing is caring?

On to open data, commonly known as data that is freely available and accessible to use, and of which our UK government is a world leader (see my previous blog). I spent the weekend attending my first unconference (where the agenda is set on the day and everyone is invited to pitch for a session; I ‘volunteered’ for one on open data and charities thanks to Pauline Roche! See image this page by @drawnalismMatt). Two things jumped out for me:

  • First, there weren’t many charities in attendance. Gaia Marcus of Centrepoint signed up to take advantage of a roomful of data enthusiasts to help her tackle the hard question of how data can be used to estimate the number of young homeless people. Why aren’t more charities doing the same? Yes, data enthusiasts can at times speak another language, but generally I’ve found them to be human and eager to take part in using their skills for good.
  • My second musing relates to a presentation by Open addresses UK that aims to create an open dataset of addresses in the UK. This was met by much enthusiasm, especially as Royal Mail, which owns the UK address database, charges for access to this dataset. Why shouldn’t it be free for everyone to use? Charities could use it to better target their marketing efforts. But here I also wondered, isn’t there a risk that it’s used in unethical ways, eg, linking the dataset with Indices of Deprivation data to target poor areas with extortionate payday loans? I’m genuinely conflicted, but on the whole I do feel that more data is a good thing—we just need to protect it from being abused.

Data 4 Good

I’ve run out of space to discuss Nesta’s event in full, but in summary, lots of cool stuff is taking place that proves to me the third sector is not necessarily ‘third’ when it comes to using data!

Do read their report.

[Cover image by Vlad Andrianov, ADMA]