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How to harness the data revolution for social good

By Rosario Piazza 7 August 2019 5 minute read

The Great Hack, Netflix’s revelatory documentary on Cambridge Analytica, paints a dystopian picture of a world in which our personal data is weaponised to win cultural and political wars.

Data permeates pretty much everything we do nowadays. It’s in the smart devices we carry, the tap-payments we make on the go, and the digital platforms we use to check credit scores, health records, book holidays and access services.

Our data-identities walk alongside our real selves. But legitimate privacy concerns shouldn’t blind us to the benefits of smart technologies designed to make life better.

Our daily decisions feed on a store of information bigger and more accessible than ever before. This brings a wealth of opportunities for charities and funders to use data for social good. The social sector has the power to turn the data revolution happening all around us into a cultural and systemic shift of such magnitude that it could change service provision fundamentally.

By harnessing the power of data, we can lay the foundations for effective, transparent, collaborative practices, and we can share learning about the impact of individual and collective charitable work. Moreover, data has the true power to turn beneficiaries from mere recipients of change into effective agents of change, as long as the opportunity is given.

So don’t let the antics of the dishonest pollute your perception. Used for good, data has the power to radically transform our sector, and the lives of the people we serve.


“In God we trust, all others must bring data” W. Edwards Deming

Data has undoubtedly changed the way we do things and has become a recurrent word in our day-to-day vocabulary. The change is even more visible in civil society. We often talk about big data, open data, data infrastructure, digital fundraising, online measurement tools and frameworks, outcomes and impact. More and more charities now recruit for data-related jobs that only exist because of the role data now plays in our lives.

Data has revolutionised the way charities and funders can measure, understand and prove the impact of their work. We have a responsibility to ensure we use it to build systems that bring positive, lasting change for people most in need around the country. It is our civic duty to evolve this revolution into one which truly makes things better. One way we at NPC have been doing this is through data labs.

We are really looking forward to NPC Ignites, where we will be debating what we’ve learned over the last decade about this data revolution. How can we harness the power of data for social good, and go from data revolution to data evolution? To get us started, here are four themes which we believe are fundamental to the journey we’re on:


1. User involvement in service provision

Services must reflect the needs of the many people in need across the country and be able to respond promptly. Data helps us better understand who the people we support are, how their needs compare to the socio-economic environment and how they can be actively involved in shaping lasting interventions.


2. Open data and data sharing

DCMS recently published their National Data Strategy, stressing the importance of trust in data use, along with the need for government departments to share and use data cooperatively. Civil society may be better placed to do this than statutory institutions, despite limited resources, because our sector is more connected to the local context than public institutions. Plus, we’re increasingly inclined to knowledge sharing and collaboration.


3. Transparent, proportionate and purposeful use of data

This is an area where the charities and funders could become thought leaders. As part of their social mission, charities and funders could lead on how data should be used transparently and proportionately with clear purpose. Civil society could lead the way in clearing grey areas shrouding what private and governmental institutions do with personal data.


4. Data and digital

Data sits most naturally with digital platforms. Yet there is still a gap to be bridged. Yes, there’s still more to do to improve the digital maturity of the social sector, but the potential underlying this opportunity is huge. For starters, people in need could easily access charitable provision anywhere any time. Furthermore, digital seems the perfect domain for charities and funders to share, learn and collaborate. The gap has kept corporate and charity worlds light years apart, depriving both of opportunities for funding and collaboration.


“Data is a precious thing and will last longer than the systems themselves’’ Tim Berners-Lee

One never really knows what the future may hold. We can though see many socio-economic variables likely to affect the sector’s ability to do its job, not least Brexit and our changing political landscape. The last few years have seen major changes in the way charities and funders approach data; GDPR is a prime example which has forced the sector to reflect, and sometimes panic, over its practices. The laborious but necessary reviews conducted by many organisations remind us of the intrinsic power of data. A power that, despite the significant amount of data collected and held by both funders and charities, has yet to be fully understood or harnessed.

The challenges are many, but with challenges come opportunities. We need to make sure the progress made to date and the lessons we’ve learned will not be neglected or forgotten.

Join in our panel debate at NPC Ignites with Rachel Rank from 360Giving, Amelia Smith from Buttle UK, and myself at NPC, to explore further how the data revolution helps us understand what works, why impact is important, and why measuring it is vital to success.