Opening up data

By Eibhlin Ni Ogain 21 July 2010

A well known quote tells us that to “improve something, first measure it”. Having just joined NPC, I was unsure what charity research would look like. A month on and that is the least of my worries. Now I am more concerned with how to go about doing that research in the first place.

The issue is; how exactly can we understand charity effectiveness when the data we base it on is notoriously inaccessible?

Last week, my colleague Camilla Nevill wrote about her frustrations over the lack of access to data on youth offending. This is an often repeated story at NPC and my first project here was no different. This involved trying to track down government figures on the needs of children and public spending across each region and country of the UK.  Three weeks of constantly coming up against closed doors made me realise how hard it is to take a quantitative approach in this sector. With such a lack of data, it is extremely challenging to do charity research. But if we can’t measure in the first place then how can we begin to improve?

In business and science, the ever increasing availability of vast amounts of data is bringing about an information revolution. It is now possible to understand trends and relationships in ways that were inconceivable even five years ago. Credit card companies can pinpoint from millions of transactions those which are likely to be fraudulent and the use of data online has revolutionised the world of advertising.

If the same amount of data was available for those working in the field of human welfare, we could begin to understand exactly what issues need to be addressed, where they should be addressed and how best to address them. Pinpointing resources in this way will allow charities to rapidly and effectively deal with problems and reduce wasteful spending.

One of the first things president Obama did when he got into office was to make as much government data available to the public as possible.

Similar efforts have been made over here. Websites like and are making good headway but are still frustratingly lacking.

In fact, as I write this, The Stationary Office are in the middle of the OpenUp challenge; a nationwide competition looking for the best idea on how to improve the availability and presentation of government data.

This OpenUp challenge is a great idea, but we still need more data to be made available.

Given the cuts that are looming for charities across the UK, anything that gives us more insight into which organisations and approaches are the most effective must be a top priority. So like Camilla, I add my voice to the call for more data. As a favourite quote of mine goes: “The point of open information is not merely to expose the world but to change it”.