Charity Support, Advice, Impact Measurement, Philanthropy Impact – NPC

Let your inner data geek free

By Lucy de Las Casas 10 October 2013

There’s a supposed divide in our office: the ‘data geeks’ and the ‘haven’t looked at a number since secondary school and proud of it’ gang. But in reality most of us sit somewhere in the middle, perhaps interested in data but lacking the time/confidence/opportunity/inclination to really get stuck in. If you recognise any of the following, you might be more of a geek than you thought.

What I’m trying to demonstrate is that you don’t have to be a statistician or professional researcher to have an interest in what data can tell us about the world we work in, the needs we address, how we operate, and what we achieve.

The Power of data: is the charity sector ready to plug in?, published today, highlights the potential of data to make charities better at what they do, and the rate at which data, and options for analysing and presenting it, are becoming available. It also suggests that most charities are not making the most of the possibilities, and searches for ways to create a change.

At NPC we’ve been working with charities and data for years—from research into issues such as homelessness or refugees using public data to understand the context in which charities operate, to our work on measurement and evaluation. So why are we writing this paper now?

The first reason relates to our involvement in programmes such as Inspiring Impact, Project Oracle, Data Labs and Improving your Evidence. All relate to data and how charities use it, and have enabled us to really understand the complexity of factors that determine whether charities engage with data or not. The availability of data is just one part of the equation. Practical barriers preventing charities using data—such as awareness of data sources, capability and resources—are just as important. As is culture. Charities need to want to use data, and feel encouraged and supported in their efforts. We see a reluctance to engage due to a fear of what the data might show—perhaps failure?, concern about what this might mean, and a lack of incentives to overcome this fear. On top of this, the current environment can make charities more risk averse, exacerbating these issues.

The second reason is the momentum that’s building around this debate. When we began the Data Labs project last summer, there were a handful of initiatives or individuals working in the space of open data and charities. Eighteen months on and there are multiple initiatives with relevance to charities and data.

We fear charities may get left behind and miss out on the opportunities presented by data, because if they’re not getting involved, many initiatives will progress without understanding what charities need to be able to access and engage with data. We need to be shaping the supply of data and the tools available for its analysis right now.

There’s also a risk that we overlook the barriers preventing demand for data. There is a lot of investment in supply of data, especially from government and the ESRC. But we need to do much more to create a culture that means charities access data, by creating incentives and tackling practical constraints such as skills and resource.

We need closet data geeks to venture out and get involved. Whilst a few charities will have research teams and specialist analysts, the vast majority will make do with people with an interest and aptitude, drawing on the resources available to support them. Us mere mortals need to get out there and engage with data and its potential. We need to show what we can achieve with it, and we need to make our data and support needs known. This will inspire others to do the same. And we need to applaud those who take the plunge; focus first and foremost on their actions to use data, rather than what the data shows; and be supportive of their efforts to improve based on what they find