Data analysis: capability crisis?

By Iona Joy 12 June 2013

I have a pure maths ‘A’ level and a third of my degree was in Economics.  I used to be a banker, had a career in venture capital, and I work at NPC. So I must be really good at statistics, quantitative data analysis, and excel databases, right?

Wrong. When looking survey results I hit my limitations after about 30 seconds. I just about know the difference between percentages and percentage points, and that you need good samples sizes to produce reliable statistical analysis, but beyond that?

I can do financial analysis and financial modelling until the cows come home. So know all those excel functions. And I’m pretty good at thinking about strategy, organisational issues and so forth. But ask me to perform any kind of database function and I run screaming to the nearest NPC geek.

And NPC is crawling with data geeks, right? Well, not quite. We have an excellent mix of skills—consulting, financial, research, life—but only a  specialist minority can really handle the complexities of sound statistical data analysis.

And here’s the rub. NPC is arguing for more and better data to be available to charities from government, and to be collected by charities so that we know what works. But having collected the data, how many charities will be in a position to analyse it? If statistics are a minority sport even at NPC, what chance is there of a small to medium-sized charity having the right skills? The skills gap is daunting, and I don’t mean any disrespect to charities who might be excellent at service delivery.

The solution could lie with the development of online tools, such as NPC’s well-being measure, that does all the maths for you. We need more such measures and I predict that whoever corners the online charity data processing market will do well. Perhaps not in 2013—NPC’s experience with the well-being measure is that we are still in market-building mode – but perhaps by 2020?

In the meantime, I cheered up hearing an excellent presentation from Aimia, the ‘loyalty management’ people who own Nectar, and all the data harboured about us on our Nectar cards. Their analytics function knows more about our tastes and preferences than we know ourselves. Aimia ran a weekend ‘DataDive’ last September for charities such as Place2Be, Keyfund and Oxfam, to help them analyse their data. They discovered some fascinating insights about what works, and are considering running more. Aimia are also experimenting with the idea of longer-term pro bono partnerships with organisations that need their analytical expertise. Kaggle is another option for accessing global analytical skills at an hourly rate.

Maybe more corporates with data analytics departments such as Aimia could offer their expertise to charities? Much more valuable than an away day painting an office!