How charities can start using open data

Open data has already attracted the interest of businesses and government bodies in the UK  and overseas. It is defined by Sarah Parker of Lamplight Database Systems as “anonymised data, freely available to anyone who wants to use it”.

Ultimately, data is only as useful as its analysis, and in the case of shared data, interpretations are ample and diverse. Here are three things charities need to do to get started with open data:

Think about what open data can do for you

Open data is a tool like any other, and can be used to help you reach specific goals. If you are unsure how open data can help you, David Kane, Research Development Officer at NCVO  suggests: “Try releasing your own data to see what others do with it – something as simple as a map of your facilities, or what time they are open”.

Think about how you could use open data to support your charity’s aims.  So if you want to increase your funding, you could boost your campaign by releasing evidence of your expenditure, in the form of open data.

Consider the reciprocal uses of open data

Other charities can benefit from the data you release. As Kieron Kirkland, Development Researcher at the Nominet Trust says, “Open data allows us to think about how we share and repurpose our data, enabling us to learn from each other and collaborate our understanding of certain areas.”

Data can be constantly recycled and put to new uses, and it is worth considering how your data could be used differently in the hands of another organisation. Kieron continues: “Although you can pick up other people’s conclusions from it, you can also analyse it to support your own purposes, which may not have even been considered by others yet.”

Who Owns My Neighbourhood, as part of Nesta’s Make it Local project, is a great example of repurposed data. They release council-owned data about land ownership to the community, helping them to make positive use of disused land and spaces.

You don’t have to publish everything

The nature of services provided within the third sector means that there will always be complications with data, since charities are often dealing with sensitive information. Kieron explains: “If somebody can access lots of data from different sources, about the same people, it is not impossible to figure out the identities of those people.” Charities need to ensure they never compromise the anonymity of clients. However, open data does offer a large degree of flexibility and as Kieron says: “is not about sharing all of your data, or even anything about individuals. Organisations have the control to deliver their data however they want, meaning that it can be aggregated, selective data which reveals nothing about individual people”.

Certainly, we should not be deterred from open data, since as Kieron rightly says; “when used in the right way, open data can help charities to share and combine their knowledge, which could save money, form advocacy approaches and change policies!” However, while it is evident that open data offers charities exciting opportunities for growth, it is equally clear that there is still more to learn about best practice and acceptable use of data.

We will be exploring these issues and more at Lasa’s Google funded event, ‘Unlocking the Potential of Open Data’  on 17 September. If you are just starting out with open data, try Tim Davies’ Open Data Cookbook or Open Charities for help.

Ian Goodman is information systems team leader at Lasa, a charity that supports third sector and government organisations in delivering services

Twitter: @lasaict