Steps on the road

Posted on 31st January 2014 by

I’ve been thinking a lot about data, defining outcomes and evidencing our impact this week. We are at the beginning of implementing a new database, and we are at that stage of the process where we have high hopes, are expecting miracles and nothing has gone wrong yet!


This is what happens when you do an image search for ‘setting up a database’!

Of course, reality will bite and our expectations will be trimmed and adjusted by the setting up process, training and the early days of usage, until we hopefully end up with something that works for us all, across the organisation. Whatever it is will be an improvement on where we are, and that is what we work for every day in every part of our organisation.

In a waft of the Bader-Meinhof effect, while we’ve been talking about how we collect and use data, a piece of work I did before I joined Impetus – DataBridge - has cropped up twice this week. This looked at the use of data and Open Data in the voluntary sector.

Open data is non-personally identifiable data produced in the course of an organisation’s ordinary business, which has been released under an unrestricted licence (LinkedGov definition).

What started as a project to explore how voluntary sector organisations could make use of open data to improve their knowledge and impact, turned into a study of why they don’t tend to! My findings were presented as 10 recommendations, some for the voluntary sector and some for the public sector. If I had to sum them up in a phrase, I’d say ‘practical barriers of sharing; public sector interest limited to a few personalities; organisations being too busy with the day job’.

Sad to say that not much seems to have changed in the last 3 years.

But in terms of need – it is a very different story. And a much bleaker one. The impact of government cuts to public services is being felt disproportionately by our most vulnerable and isolated people. Those who were just getting by with the limited support they received can slip into crisis when that support is reduced by what looks to decision-makers to be ‘only a little bit’.

So our imperative now is to have the best information we can about our service users, so that we can illustrate with hard data the stories that we hear every week. We are doing that first by focusing on the quality of our own data, and then by developing the way we use it. Tools such as Data Unity look like they could be helpful here.

If you’re interested in use of data in the voluntary sector, how we evidence our work and what else we need to know to be the best, get in touch below or tweet us @BHImpetus.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Pauline Roche says:

    Hi Jo, Always good to read what you have to say so thanks for posting this. You say “Sad to say that not much seems to have changed in the last 3 years” but I feel a bit more hopeful, perhaps because I want it to be so. Some of the reasons for this: I’ve been to my first CommsCamp (“unconference for communicators”) and first UKGovCamp (“for people interested in how the public sector does digital stuff”) in the last 12 months, and I led sessions at both on the public sector and voluntary sector working together. I’m not saying the sessions were packed out, but some ppl from each sector came, and we communicated, and I think that’s where some of the hope is – with the people from both sectors who are willing to build relationships and who have access to contacts, tools, data and information which we can share and make changes with. I’ve also attended my first BrewCamp and SocialCareCurry – again places where people from both sectors are meeting to talk and listen, and hopefully, maybe sooner, maybe later, to collaborate to make change.
    Locally and regionally, I’m helping to run Open Mercia, a community-led open data organisation, focused on finding datasets that relate to quality of life. This regional group of developers, data analysts and policy advisors are interested in encouraging the release and use of open data for social, economic and environmental benefit. I organised an Open Knowledge Foundation Open Data event last year where some local developers, VCS colleagues and a few other interested people (about 20 people) came together to share and learn from each other, and make a case for opening up Charity Commission data. We’re now organising another event for Open Data Day 2014 (Feb 22nd) and hope to attract more of the same people, and some new people have also said they want to be involved – small acorns but I think we will grow.
    Elsewhere in the sector, 4 of us from the voluntary sector in the Midlands organised the first VCSSCamp (unconference for people connected with (staff, volunteers, trustees) voluntary and community sector infrastructure organisations) last June, attracting about 40 colleagues from the sector, interested in using digital tools (and data) more and better. We’re now starting to plan the second one, and VCS colleagues in the North have said they want to organise one themselves.
    In September 2013 I delivered a presentation on the VCS and Open data at Birmingham Science City Digital Working Group, a cross-sector group organised by Aston University, where I quoted from your Databridge report.
    I also organised a well-attended ‘Data and charities’ roundtable for Charitable Trusts West Midlands members in September, with Nick Booth, founder of the social media surgery movement, and Andrew Mackenzie, a member of the Cabinet’s Open Data User Group, as speakers. Members lapped up the information, and we are now looking at some simple visualisations of members data.
    You probably know that Datakind UK (“community of data scientists and non-profits working together to better collect, analyze, and visualize data in the service of humanity”) organised their first UK datadive (“weekend events that bring the data science community together with the non-profit community to tackle tough data problems”) in September 2013. This event looked at the data of some of the larger UK charities but I believe this model could be scaled down.
    Obviously, some of the above will be news to you, but I hope you (and anyone else who reads this – in fact, I’m going to repost it on my blog) will find it hopeful. Once I started to understand all this (although I’ve worked in the sector since 1990s and I’m a qualified librarian/community worker, it took me a while), I thought your Databridge UK work was ground-breaking and inspirational, and yes, I think it’s time has come!

    1. joivensimpetus says:

      Hi Pauline,

      Thanks so much for replying, wow you are busy! Great that these conversations are happening, working out where we are and what we can do together is a really important part of the whole agenda – perhaps we lack a focus of what open data can actually do for us down here.

      When I said not much has changed, I was talking really about the reality of running a charity in 2014. As you will well know, we are more squeezed than ever in terms of management resource, and yet we are being asked to (and want to!) achieve more and more in terms of monitoring, accreditation, evidencing impacts, cost/benefit analyses. Open data and the time to get out to the kind of events you mention can sometimes be a luxury we can’t afford, sadly.

      I am hoping that by focusing on the quality of our data and evidence at Impetus we can achieve all that we need to in terms of quality assurance and proving our case in terms of the experience of our service users (especially impact of cuts to public services and welfare ‘reform’) – and that we can explore data sharing/open data more. I guess its a case of getting my own house in order, walking the talk and so on?! I do have high hopes that the database we have chose will allow us to experiment with data sharing within our local partnerships (although perhaps that’s a foolish thing to pin on a dbase!) and that this could be the opening that we need.

      I’d love to hear more about the Data & Charities event and the VCSSCamp – can you point us to a blog or anything from the day? And thanks for your kind words about DataBridge :-)

      1. Pauline Roche says:

        Hi again Jo, I’ve now posted my initial response to your blog here: – it’s more or less the same as the above – I will let you know if I get any responses.

        In the meantime, there’s a little piece about the Charities and Data event here and the VCSSCamp site is here

        I wish you well with your database and look forward to more dialogue this year!


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