How can open data benefit the charity sector?

By Patrick Nash

This week we look at how charities can take advantage of open data and identify the key challenges they have to address when it comes to making their data available for public viewing.

‘Open data’ has attracted a great deal of interest in the third sector of late in the UK. In a nutshell, it is the principle that data should be freely available and not restricted by copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. Supporters of the principle say data should be available to everyone to use and republish as they wish.

So what are the benefits of open data and how can it help your charity?

A number of charities are already exploring the potential of open data for a variety of reasons including research and intelligence, to support campaigning and advocacy work, and to increase accountability. It can also help to improve fundraising, boosting innovation and creating a more effective and targeted service delivery.

Websites such as OpenCharities.org help users easily access information, including financial breakdowns of where the charities income is coming from and what it is being spent on, and already, thousands of charities across the UK, like Save The Children, display their full financial accounts online.

However, all registered charities are required to publish financial reports and practically anybody can gain access to this information. Open data is about providing more than just figures.  For example, Charity Water –  an organisation that builds clean water projects in developing nations – display on Google Maps the physical location of the project your donation has targeted. The charity also uploads regular field notes from its staff documenting the day-in and day-out operations.

So it is clear that Charity Water have invested a large amount of time and money to boost its level of transparency as an organisation – but what can other charities learn from this innovative project, and should they be careful when publishing previously confidential information into the public domain?

Below are my four top tips to help charities take advantage of open data, and I also pinpoint the areas of risk associated with open data.

Productivity

The process of researching data can be long and arduous – freedom of information requests can take months to process and this will eat up time that could be spent elsewhere. The principle of open data ensures that data will be freely available to all. Therefore, with charities being constantly pressed for time, and with more organisations embracing open data, many arduous hours searching for information and making requests could be saved.  This will undoubtedly increase productivity across the boardrooms in the charity sector and allow directors to focus their time on more pressing matters such as service delivery and fundraising.

Accountability

Data holds information – and this information can often be tied up in regulation and red tape – which can make it hard to trace who is responsible. Charities will undoubtedly want to ensure that their services are totally transparent to the public and their donors, as trust is a big part of their work. When donors can easily access information as to where their funding has gone and who it has helped, it can help to create and maintain a good reputation.

Choice

People value choice, and with the current restrictions on data they cannot always make the informed choice they want – open data enables charities to have all the information in order to make choices.

However, charitable organisations should also be careful what choices they make if they do take part in open data initiatives. They must ensure the data they provide never compromises the anonymity of their users. Organisations have the choice as to how they deliver their data, meaning that they can publish aggregated, selective data that protects that anonymity of everybody involved.

Effective communication and clear objectives are key:

Plenty of information is already out in hyperspace but it’s not all easily accessible. Charities will publish their accounts with the Charity Commission but many members of the public probably won’t view it as a first port of call to find out information. If you’re a publicly funded organisation, transparency is key.

Explaining how publicly donated money has been spent and what the impact that money made, should help show worth and value. Sharing data might initially come with some tensions but as mentioned above – in my experience, a transparent organisation is generally a successful one among donors and investors.

To sum up, open data is indeed an exciting prospect that could have a big impact on the charity sector. However, the concept should not be considered lightly, and charities must be extremely careful, when making previously private information public knowledge.

For more information on open data in the charity sector, visit: www.opencharities.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Case Study

Sussex Police: Connect Assist created an online help centre and web chat service

Read

Connect with us