The power of data: Is the charity sector ready to plug in?

What is it about data that is creating so much interest? And are we, as individual charities, and as a sector, engaging with it as we should? This paper aims to answer these questions, drawing on NPC’s experience working with charities in this area.

Much of the current debate centres on opening up data and datasets; that is, providing access to ‘open data’ that has previously not been accessible—in large part, data held by government. Other types of data include sensitive data, such as personally-identifiable data, ‘Big data’, linked data, and the data we collect and hold within organisations, private data.

Intelligent use of data can significantly increase the effectiveness of charities. This isn’t new: most—even all—charities use basic data in some way. But the potential of data is significantly greater as a result of the increased availability and burgeoning options for processing. Broadly, charities can use data to help them understand the issues they work on better, operate more effectively, and improve their understanding of results and impact.

There are many good examples of the use of data happening already, but the vast majority of charities are engaging with data much as they always have: in a limited fashion. But why? On the supply side, more progress needs to be made around making data available, particularly in a way that is useful and accessible to charities. The picture on the demand side is more complex, but the key barriers are:

  • Awareness: charities and funders need to be aware of the potential of data sets that are relevant to their work and publically available (or that could be requested), and how to access these.
  • Capability: Most charities don’t have specialised analysts or research departments, so making the most of data can be difficult as at the minimum it requires someone with an aptitude for, and interest in, analysis.
  • Capacity: Data analysis is difficult and requires resource. Frontline charities rarely have the time and money for this, or the funding to bring it in externally.

So what needs to be done to ensure charities can make the most of the data revolution? The final section of this paper recommends an integrated approach to tackling barriers to supply and demand.