Splashing around with open data can result in more questions than answers, but perhaps that's the point...
The shiny new (and green) data.gov.uk launched today, along with a white paper on open data from Cabinet Office: this will hopefully further enflame our collective enthusiasm, as citizens and in our professional lives, for using and supplying open data. The Trust will be launching our latest State of Art review on ‘Charities and Open Data’ in a couple of weeks, and we’re continuing our efforts to incorporate open data into our work.
Most recently, with a focus on the recently launched 'Digital Edge' - "a £2 million investment programme to fund new ideas for using digital technology to improve young people’s economic and social participation" - I have been exploring two questions:
· How can open data inform us, potential applicants and successful applicants to the Digital Edge programme?
· How can we use data about potential applicants to inform our decisions?
My first move was to gamely dive into the copious amounts of open government data relating to young people: unemployment, NEETS, school absence rates. With a bit of fiddling about the data soon starts telling some stories: for example, rates of 'persistent absence' from school are consistently higher for secondary school students on free school meals ('FSM') -
and the change in rates of unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds vary widely across different regions and, in some cases, between men and women -
But what can we do with such nuggets? Are they a strong enough basis for prioritising projects working with certain beneficiary groups or in certain regions? My answer would be clearly not: they are better seen as indicators of issues which need further investigation. They are very general 'what's seriously lacking in 'why's and, hence, incapable of generating plausible 'how's in isolation from other forms of more specific insight.
Open data tools such as Open Data Communities and Seme4 are pretty accessible and allow for more fine-grained discovery of government data pertaining to your area, and may have a useful role in providing us with a consistent basis for assessing applicants' claims about the need for their project. Yet the feeling remains that in being guided by what has been counted we risk missing what counts: with an ambition to 'dig deeper into the problems and addressing the root causes', we need the projects in Digital Edge programme to challenge and expand upon the data that's already out there, rather than use it to define the issue or provide unexamined indicators of success.
The work by m'colleague Kieron on developing an eloquent approach to evaluation is therefore crucial. Taking a thorough, creative look at how projects can be shaped and improved by the data they collect and share gives us the opportunity to add colour and connotation to our current understanding of the challenges and the most effective ways in which they can be addressed.
As for the data we can pull together about applicants, the potential demonstrated by Chris Taggart's open triptych - opencharities, opencorporates and openlylocal - is exciting, but needs further elaboration and coordination to exert greater influence on funders' decisions. Armed with a charity registration number and/or company number, you can start to 'pull in' data about an organisation's location, trustees, accounts, funding from Local authorities and activities: but there are significant gaps, notably in data about charitable grant funding, project descriptions and meaningful evaluation data.
There is a clear opportunity here for funders and applicant organisations to build on the 'spine' of basic data already available by beginning to systematically share increasingly detailed outcomes data in a structured way. The shift should be from being able to say ‘who got how much’ to ‘what happened’ (and what is the evidence that it was effective). Regarding the 'spine', the Charity Commission's current consultation reviewing information collected from Charities is significant: while it's probably unlikely they'll banish PDFs in one fell swoop, it can't hurt to ask.... As for the other end, collecting deeper, richer outcomes data is in the gift of funders and the organisations we support: opening up what's already out there and building confidence in sharing what's to come is an exciting shared challenge.
We're taking up this challenge and we're not alone. The first build of 'openly.org.uk' is getting underway over the summer, and our friends at Big Lottery and NCVO continue to support our efforts and develop their own opening moves. I expect to see more and more of our voluntary sector colleagues taking the open data plunge over the next year, splashing around and starting, as we are, to swim.