In this blog, Sarah Sandford, NPC’s Principal: Data, shares some exciting updates on our Local Needs Databank and explores how you can get involved in a Q&A with Tom Watson, Director at Data for Action.
At NPC, it is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want to know about local problems, you need to speak to charities at the grassroots. Yet all that local knowledge and experience often remains partial and dormant. During the pandemic, it became abundantly clear to NPC that charities needed a platform to share knowledge about the social needs, services, and outcomes that they work so hard to achieve. To meet this need, we launched a Local Needs Databank.
Data bank 1.0 was a workable solution in the context of the pandemic and we’re proud of how it helped inform charities. But it became clear that we could do better, by creating automatic updates of government data and making it easier for charities to submit and share data without taking valuable time away from their service users. To that end, we’ll soon be launching the next version of the local need’s databank.
As NPC’s Principal: Data, I’m incredibly proud to be working on a comprehensive, accessible, and free resource for the charity sector. Research shows that charities lack access to tools that help them to understand and benefit from data. Whether you want to back up your funding applications or understand your local area better, we’re working to create a data bank that responds to your needs and ambitions.
One of the overarching principles underlying our approach is to make your life easier so that you spend less time navigating multiple data sources from lots of different sources. Anyone can access it for free–there will be no restrictions on it. However, if you do collect your own data, some of you may want to share your insights and experiences to help contribute towards a better understanding of what charities observe and do on the ground.
The strength of the data bank will depend in part on its ability to draw on up-to-date figures from the charity sector. And we are convinced that charities will be more likely to submit data if its hassle-free and they can see how it can be used for good. If enough charities submit data, we’ll be able to help them relate what’s going on in their local area to in-depth data about local needs and wider trends. For example, a charity working on debt advice in, say, Newcastle, who sees that demand for their services is soaring, might want to find out if the same thing is happening in other cities and local areas too, which in turn might lead them to collaborate with others or launch a joint campaign.
That’s why NPC is delighted to be working with Data for Action, a two-man powerhouse (supported by the ever excellent and knowledgeable David Kane) with the technical savvy, vision, and experience for data in the third sector. Data for Action have designed a data upload system and a ‘data standard’ to help us paint the best picture of the sector that we can.
A Q&A with Data for Action
Sarah: Tom, could you explain what a data standard is and why it helps charities submit data?
Tom: Our ‘data standard’ gives charities a way to share data with greater confidence that it will be both useful and useable for others. It sets out the bits of information that need to be present in order for your data to be easily combined with other data. You can also think of it as a tool that allows charities to specify this data through a simple form, without needing to understand the technical details.
We’ve drawn on standards like CSV on the Web and schema.org to create our own. Using these existing standards means a lot of the hard work is already done, so we can devote more time to getting NPC’s Local Needs Data bank ready for users by testing it in practice.
Sarah: What are the strengths of this new data standard?
Tom: Based on feedback from users of the earlier version of the Local Needs Databank, as well as our own vision, we have built a standard that is:
- Anonymous: it’s there for the publication of aggregate information relating to local need rather than data that could possibly identify individuals.
- Pragmatic: it does not require wholesale changes in how charities measure or collect their data.
- Incremental: the standard defines two categories of data: good and best. Data published to the best standard will be much easier to use and combine with other datasets, but good data could still be collected and used.
In practice, a data standard is a way of labelling the data (the label is known as ‘metadata’) that will help others to use and understand it.
Sarah: Could you talk us through what a charity would need to do to submit their data?
Tom: Imagine that a (fictional) local charity (Borset Advice) has uncovered some figures relating to the number of people in their (fictional) local area (Borsetshire) who have been ringing their debt advice helpline. They have produced a CSV file of this data—making sure that it doesn’t contain any personal information relating to the callers.
This is an example of what the CSV file for Borset Advice might look like:
|Callers needing debt advice
|Callers needing energy costs advice
Borset Advice then uses the simple form on NPC’s website to provide metadata about this file. The form translates this into the technical data standard that is needed.
The data they provide is:
- Title: Debt advice users in Borsetshire, Sept-Dec 2023
- Description: Data from Borset Advice helpline, compiled in January 2024. Data relates to calls that were answered during office hours.
- Licence: Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution
They indicate that the ‘Callers needing debt advice’ and ‘Callers needing energy costs advice’ columns contain values and that the ‘Month’ column contains the time period. Because the data doesn’t contain a Location column, they instead indicate that the whole dataset relates to Borsetshire.
What I’ve shown with this example is that each person submitting a dataset will only need to add a title and description, a mention of the licence that they are using to publish the data (we will provide sample licences that are appropriate for these purposes), and a spreadsheet where locations and time periods are specified for the data cells contained in it (this can be done for the whole spreadsheet if all the data within comes from the same time period). We intend to allow for charities to submit data on the scale that they wish to—whether that be at county, town, or local authority level (or even postcode).
On its own this data might not seem significant, but the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. If we manage to get other charities working on a similar theme or area to submit data, then charities like ‘Borset Advice’ would learn as they submit, helping others to know more about their contribution to the bigger picture too. Maybe they’ll see that demand for their advice is higher than in neighbouring ‘Forsetshire’. Maybe they’ll be able to relate the differences in service provision to other variables, like local deprivation.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this, especially if you’re thinking of sharing your data once the databank is back online. What do you think of the standard? What sort of data would you like to share? How could you benefit from other charities data and how would you use it?
We’re busy testing the Databank to make sure that it works in practice when we launch it in a few months’ time. If you have comments or you would like to participate in testing, please get in touch with Sarah Sandford, Principal: Data at NPC, or Tom Watson, Director at Data for Action.