'Open data' is a term thrown about in many circles, from the mainstream media to academia to government departments. But what is it all about? And what relevance does it have to NGO's, charities & third sector organisations, often hard pressed for time & resources?
Your data and open data
Most not for profit organisations will have a range of data within their possession: ranging from external data related to their focus of interest (e.g. research findings) to internal data such as the range of operating costs – or sources of funding.
But what is 'Open data' exactly? And what does it have to do with these potential data sources?
In simple terms, open data could be described thus:
"Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone - subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike"
One of the key benefits of open data is therefore being able to draw on bigger data sets beyond those you create yourself in order to support the research and analysis of your organisation, for example to provide a wider and more independent evidence base or to enable unique insights that might only be possible by combining your data with those of others.
Equally, providing your own data ‘openly’ allows others to benefit in the same way.
What may not be so obvious is that open data is as much a mind set as anything else - if one is providing data in an 'open' way then it must be done with the most generous spirit – to be freely used by anyone, for any purpose. While making use of others open data might seem like a more obvious benefit to your organisation - providing your data in an ‘open’ way might seem to some a more frightening and crazy prospect! Why would any sane organisation want to give up any data in this way, when it doesn't have to? Let alone put in the resources to do so?
What may be surprising to many is that there are often as many benefits to sharing Open Data as there are to making use of others. Equally surprising, the potential pitfalls of open data will increasingly more likely be due to not sharing data in an open way rather than from sharing it.
These points may seem counter-intuitive, and indeed in many ways open data turns on its head conventional ideas regarding data: how data is best used, created, gathered, and even owned.
Below i'll outline the many surprising potential benefits and pitfalls for NGO's regarding Open Data.
Benefits of Open Data for NGO's
- Facilitate others to promote your work: by making your data available in this way, you allow others such as academics, or data visualisation specialists to promote your work and the evidence you have gained more widely.
- Share your good practice and contribute to greater understanding: providing your data in this way can allow you to demonstrate your successes and good practice.
- Attract more support and funding: by providing your data more openly you not only allow existing donors to review your results more independently and conveniently, you also allow other interested parties to do so just as easily.
- More evidence for you to draw on: your organisation can benefit from the open data provided by others, to make a stronger case or unique insights.
- Set a good example: by providing open data yourself, you demonstrate the benefits and encourage others to share their data in a similar way.
- Encourage more citizen engagement: by providing open data you not only demonstrate your transparency to ordinary citizens – it allows them to engage with you through the data you freely provide
Pitfalls of Open Data for NGO's
- Ignoring or resisting open data: with many governments adopting open data practices who are often major NGO donors themselves (e.g. the US & UK governments), donors and others are increasingly likely to expect and demand open data practices.
- Responsible sharing & perceived ownership: organisations considering publishing open data need to take care to avoid publicising inappropriate data, and ensure consent is obtained when required as well as anonymisation when appropriate.
- Addressing the 'fear of failure' issue: one of the most challenging aspects of open data will be the realisation that such data could also expose weaknesses and failures. Developing the right culture both within an organisation and externally (i.e. donors) that values transparency as an opportunity for improvement rather than an existential threat - is absolutely key.
Showcase: Open data driving effective development solutions in India
Our example comes from India, where a philanthropic foundation has used government open data to target donations more effectively towards improving agriculture & education. A common issue for governments, NGO’s and other organisations in development is ensuring resources are deployed where they are intended, and most needed - and the common obstacle that often prevents this happening effectively is scale and limited resources (in this case, effecting a policy over an entire country). To address this, a data specialist startup was employed to develop a dashboard which pulled together open data from a range of government departments and public bodies.
The dashboard then allowed you to analyse at district level various metrics together such as crop coverage, productivity, livestock services, financial services and more. The foundation was then able to use this dashboard to target its funds towards the specific changes it wanted to drive - for example to empowering female farmers in districts with low female access to financial services. The same dashboard could also be used in subsequent years to assess how effective that funding had been in actually driving that change. This dashboard was of course only made possible due to the various government departments and public bodies sharing their information publicly through open data
This is perhaps an excellent example of how open data can be used not only to target limited funds & resources more effectively - but also to measure and quantify it’s effectiveness over time. You can find out more about this inspiring project here.
In this article we have explored what 'Open Data' is all about, and why this should be of critical interest not only to all NGO's whatever size and remit – but to other third sector organisations and charities in general. We have outlined some of the key benefits, which are numerous – and have outlined some of the key pitfalls – most notable perhaps that ignoring open data entirely is likely to become an untenable position for most if not all these type of organisations going forward into the future.
I hope though I have managed to illustrate that most of all - while these changes are likely inevitable, that overall, the benefits to be gained through open data far outweigh the challenges that need to be overcome to enable it, and make it a hugely worthwhile exercise for the common good.
You can see our own work with NGO's over the years here.
Other articles making the case for open data for NGO’s and third sector orgs
Examples of open data being used by NGO's and third sector orgs
About open data more generally
Pranath is our back-end developer who knows the deepest, darkest secrets of our CMS of choice - Typo3. In his free time he likes to balance the mind and body doing plenty of hot yoga, freediving, SUP, or balancing on his new slackline in front of the old west pier.