Helen Wadham - Wikileaks shows the power of public data

Public data could provide charites with very useful information, says the senior lecturer at Staffordshire University

Helen Wadham
Helen Wadham

We all enjoyed finding out that Libyan leader General Gaddafi is partial to flamenco, even as the Wikileaks scandal unearthed more worrying secrets.

The publication of 250,000 classified documents highlights the sheer volume and variety of information produced not only within US diplomatic circles, but also across workplaces worldwide.

In a report by the Advanced Performance Institute, a research organisation for performance management, half the public sector organisations surveyed said they collected more data now than two years ago, but only about 10 per cent of it helped them to perform better.

The big society initiative will give the third sector access to much of this data, which is key to service delivery and policy decisions.

Along with the information people willingly generate themselves through social networking, public data - which covers everything from crime rates to the performance of local councils - has huge potential for the voluntary sector if we can use it effectively.

David Kane, research officer at the NCVO, suggests public data could provide charities with new ways of finding out who needs their services and where they are. It could also strengthen campaigning activities.

As charities, our ambition is to support and facilitate change. However, our ability to achieve this ambition relies on our effectiveness at what management guru Peter Drucker famously called "knowledge work". That is, our usefulness depends largely on our ingenuity in adding value to this and other information.

In a recent paper for the Funding Commission, Guy Yeomans said he was confident of our ability to do just that, citing the possibility of remixing public data into new forms in ways that benefit the people we work with.

Public data might also generate new ways to engage with donors. A recent US-based survey by Cygnus Research found charities struggle to decide how often to solicit donations.

Clever use of publicly available data, along with charities' own records, could help to resolve this question and shape novel, less intrusive ways of formulating and making the ask.

Yeomans acknowledged that public data - and perhaps other trends yet to emerge - present technical challenges that are currently beyond the skills and knowledge of the third sector, so we might need to embark on some good old-fashioned training.

We might also do well to think ahead about our own approach to issues of privacy and transparency, as an increasingly open government might begin to ask charities to share and share alike.

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