Big challenges – and rewards – for Big Data in the third sector

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

By Stephen Lochore

‘Big data’ is big news! Along with its close relative ‘open data’, it’s part of the latest thinking about how managing information can help bring about better services. The rough idea is to use new technology and approaches to understand, analyse, link and where possible share large complex datasets to generate new insights and improve decisions.

In 2012, the UK government identified big data as one of eight ‘great technologies’ that support science and business, and since then has invested in a range of big data initiatives through the UK Research Councils. This includes the ESRC’s Big Data Network, whose current phase involves establishing four academic research centres to make data from local government and business more accessible.

In Scotland, an industry-led data lab, backed by public funding, is due to open late in 2014 to develop new data science capabilities.

Most of the focus has been on private sector innovation, higher education research capabilities and public sector datasets. Little has been said about the third or voluntary sector, which is surprising:

  • Third sector organisations provide a wide range of services – policymakers need to understand the sector’s structure and capabilities;
  • Many third sector organisations gather information that could help improve the design and delivery of services – they work directly with local communities including vulnerable groups who can be reluctant to engage in formal consultations.

Fortunately, there are a few initiatives which are looking at these issues.

On Monday 13 October I went to the first of a series of workshops organised by Scottish Universities Insight Institute into the opportunities and challenges of using data for Scotland’s third sector organisations.

  • There is a real need for data about third sector activities in order to demonstrate its importance and counter misunderstandings. For example, evidence gathered as part of a comparative non-profit sector research project has shown that, across the countries studied, the third sector workforce is larger than transport or construction.
  • Third sector organisations need to collect data about outcomes in order to identify what works. This should inform third sector investment decisions and also public policy.
  • The critical issue facing many organisations is how to monitor activity without spending more time on data entry and reporting.
  • Many sources of third sector data exist, the next challenge is to share and analyse information to generate insight.

The ESRC has announced that the next phase of its Big Data Network will focus on third sector and social media data. I wasn’t able to find much detail, but expect this to include identifying and publicising existing collections of data concerning the sector.

Finally, umbrella bodies can provide the digital infrastructure to help local organisations structure and share data. For example, SCVO run a shared database and reporting platform called Milo, used by sector co-ordinating bodies in each of Scotland’s local authority areas. Milo populates information sources including the public Get involved! portal which proves access to details of charities and community groups in Scotland.

The third sector plays an important and often misunderstood role in our society and economy. We need better data about the sector:

  • For the sector’s own use, to improve its insight and practice – ‘better performance’
  • For policymakers to guide decisions about service delivery – ‘effective deployment’
  • To help people identify and access appropriate local services – ‘greater impact’.

Whether it’s Big, Open, Linked or even Shared, what the third sector needs is Good Data – and even more importantly, good data management. And that holds true for all our other sectors too.


Further reading

Big data and data protection

The ‘big’ reveal (local government’s potential use of big data), IN TS Today, Vol 36 No 1 Jan/Feb 2014

Evidence for success: the guide to getting evidence and using it

Evidence and transparency in the open public services reform: perspectives for the third sector (TSRC working paper 117)

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on a range of third sector issues. Abstracts and access to journal articles are only available to members.

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