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A big day for charity data

You could be forgiven for missing it, but this month was a big deal in the world of open data with the publication of 360 Giving’s Grant Navigator prototype. 360 Giving aims “to help UK grant makers and philanthropists to publish their grant information online in an easy-to-use way” and with their GrantNav tool they have put data about £22bn worth of grants into the public domain.

It is now possible to access the details of more than a quarter of a million different grants covering the past 20 years. You can search by funder or recipient, view some of the visualisations that are available or grab the data to play with yourself. It is, by their own admission, pretty rough and ready, but as a work in progress it offers a glimpse of the possibilities.

Over the past four years the UK government has been leading the open data charge, publishing a huge array of data that can be accessed and interrogated. While there’s still much more to do, they’ve made a bold start. The not-for-profit sector has been relatively slow to respond to this agenda and there are just a handful of examples of charities opening up and making use of their data – Barnsley Hospice being one that deserves an honourable mention.

360 Giving and the GrantNav database is a great first step by a handful of trusts and foundations, including some of the largest such as the Big Lottery Fund, the Arts Council and the Wellcome Trust, who have opened up their data. I know that even getting to this point has not been easy and without the perseverance of Will and Fran Perrin of the Indigo Trust, Nominet Trust’s Ed Anderton and others this data would never have seen the light of day.

Although this is a significant day in the development of open data, and one I suspect we may look back on as a watershed, it’s only one side of the equation. For open data to be useful we need to have the tools and capability to make use of it and to make it useful. Transparency, a term much loved by the government in its open data rhetoric, is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself.

One of the main potential benefits of open data to the sector lies in accountability: making it easier for us to be accountable to our beneficiaries and for the social sector to hold the state and corporations to account. A database with 260,000 items in it is not on its own going to improve accountability. In fact, it could easily be used to bury information – the proverbial needle in a haystack. So we need tools and know-how to glean insights and make sense of these vast data sets.

But now this data is published, we can at least make a start, and those who know how to can show us the way, illustrating the potential and inspiring the rest of us to engage. Let’s hope that other funders, charities and social enterprises follow suit in opening up their data and finding creative ways to make use of it. It’s time we stopped seeing open data as something that is the sole preserve of government.

Toby Blume is an independent strategist working with the charity sector