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Open data and the voluntary sector

The following guest post is from David Kane, who is a research officer at NCVO. He blogs on NCVO’s website and can be found on twitter @kanedr. The author wishes to acknowledge Louise Brown from NCVO’s ICT and Collaboration Team for her valuable input.

Here at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) we’ve recently started taking an interest in open data, and its implication for charities and the voluntary sector.

We know that some voluntary organisations which specialise in open data have been leading the charge – the Open Knowledge Foundation is a not-for-profit company, mySociety is a registered charity – and often the most exciting and innovative uses of open data are made by volunteers in their spare time. But we know that many voluntary organisations find it difficult to find the time and skills to develop their ICT capabilities, and can find the challenge of implementing new technologies in their organisation daunting. This is daunting not just because of the time and resources required, but also because it requires a change in organisational culture.

Our interest in open data culminated recently when the Coalition government published its paper Building the Big Society, which included five themes. The NCVO research team have looked at the evidence behind each of these themes – you can see the results on our website.

The first four themes relate well to NCVO’s usual work – they talk about participation, transferring power, communities and supporting organisations – but the fifth (publish government data) was less familiar, and is a new concept to much of the voluntary and community sector.

Looking at this fifth theme, I came up with a number of opportunities and challenges that open data presents for charities and voluntary organisations:

1. Open data will give charities new ways to find and share information on the need of their beneficiaries – who needs their services most and where they are located.

The sharing of information will be key to this – it’s not just about using data that the government has opened up, but also opening your own data. Organisations like New Philanthropy Capital and NCVO’s own Strategy and Impact unit stress the need for charities to demonstrate the impact that their services have – opening their data can help to do this.

This can create a more joined up service for users, provide cost savings and mean that organisations can meet unmet needs. But organisations need to think about how to access and manipulate this information – will it need specialist staff or volunteers? Some organisations might need outside help to be able to do this.

2. Charities will be able to use the evidence found in open data to boost their campaigns and lobby government. Voluntary sector organisations have been at the forefront of opening up data.

Providing services directly to those in need isn’t the only way that charities help the most vulnerable – their campaigning and lobbying also has a very important role in this. Open data can help charities speak truth to power, whether it’s challenging government spending or using their own data to lobby for better targeting of services. Data that charities gather themselves through their beneficiaries and communities can make the case even more forcefully, but again charities need to have the skills to be able to do this.

3. Many of the skills needed to create, access and use open data are not yet widespread in the voluntary sector. There is a cost to effectively creating and using this data, while sharing commercially sensitive data could reduce competitiveness.

This is a really important point – the uneven spread of the skills, knowledge and resources needed means that some organisations risk being left behind while others use open data to its full potential. At the moment much of work being done is by interested and passionate individuals, but there may not be enough of these to go around.

4. As open data becomes embedded in government, voluntary organisations which contract with government may be compelled to produce and share data as part of those contracts.

This is a bit hypothetical at the moment – I’ve seen no evidence of this happening in government contracts yet. But it seems possible to me that as a culture of open data becomes embedded in government, this culture informs their contracting arrangements. If this does happen, charities will need to be ready.

Conclusion

So how does the voluntary sector keep up with the open data revolution? Well it needs to make sure that staff and volunteers have the skills and knowledge needed to create and use open data. Charities need to learn from each other too, particularly by talking to organisations that are ahead of the game. Perhaps most importantly, examples of the power of open data will show charities how important this is.

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  • http://www.akvo.org Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson

    David, I really think you are on the right track here.

    I am one of the co-founders of Akvo.org which is a non-profit foundation that provides open-source internet and mobile phone tools for the development aid sector.

    In the commentary to each of the four points you talk about you mention that change requires new skills and expertise. I agree. However, we can also make it easier to share information, specifically by by building new types of systems, or extending existing systems, which make it easy to share data.

    We have found that organizations who use Akvo.org are particularly interested in how easy it is to share project information, without having to become an expert at how these systems are built. We are, for example, soon to launch field reporting via SMS for projects on the Akvo platform, which could be quite complicated (or impossible) for a non-techie to get organized. But on the Akvo platform it will be an integrated function, simple to get started with (without specialist staff) and any field worker with a mobile phone will be able to send project reports to via SMS.

    It is good that the passion of volunteers help the non-profit sector get more open, but in the end I believe that voluntary organizations and non-profits needs to become more open as a natural part of the what they do. It can’t all be an afterthought dependent on somebody’s voluntary effort.

    As for point 4. I think we are already seeing some of that happening in the Netherlands, where the work we do with open project reporting has been strongly encouraged by the government.

    Finally, how does the voluntary sector keep up? We’ll part of the solution must be to not reinvent the wheel. Look out there and see what is already available. There is a lot going on that you don’t have to be an expert to use.

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