Analysis: International development is leading the way on open data

To capitalise on the wealth of information becoming available, Dawn Austwick of the Big Lottery Fund says the sector needs "more geeks and nerds"

Dawn Austwick of the Big Lottery Fund, which has committed itself to making its data more open
Dawn Austwick of the Big Lottery Fund, which has committed itself to making its data more open

Trusts and foundations in the UK provide grants totalling about £2.5bn a year, so it seems obvious that money should be spent wisely and without duplication.

But there has been some concern that too many grants go to certain causes and parts of the country and too few to others, partly because funders aren't coordinating their efforts and sharing information about their grant-giving.

The international development sector has been leading the way in opening up its data by developing the International Aid Transparency Initiative in 2008. The IATI has established a standard way of sharing information on aid projects and its registry provides access to standardised open-data files. It was originally developed by government aid donors but is increasingly used by charities to publish details of their projects, spending and results.

Beth Breeze, director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, says being open about funding decisions and what happens after grants are made is of immense benefit to both grant-makers and grant recipients. "Opaque grant-making decisions benefit no one," she says. "Unless we share our learning with each other, we are destined to repeat mistakes and fail to replicate success."

Another initiative, the 360 Giving project, was set up last year to campaign for similar transparency among UK grant-makers by Fran Perrin, founder and director of the Indigo Trust, and her husband William, who is one of the trustees. The trust funds technology-driven social change projects, predominantly in Africa. The aim of the 360 campaign is for 80 per cent of grants by value made by UK charities, foundations and other grant-makers, and 50 per cent by number, to be reported as open data to agreed standards within five years.

Nesta, the innovation charity, and the Nominet Trust, which supports organisations that use digital technologies for social good, are involved in the campaign linked from 360's site, and have both published data sets. The project launched a prototype standard last month for publishing UK grant data in a format that makes it easier to use and compare. The standard is based on existing data standards, including the one developed by IATI.

William Perrin says openness and transparency will provide grant-makers with more information and give them more confidence to make grants. Grant recipients, he says, will have more information about who is making grants, for what and to whom. He believes open philanthropy will increase giving and grant-making. "We often speak to people who feel giving is too risky for them and that they are making decisions in the dark," he says. "Being able to see who is giving to what and the impact it achieves will give confidence to people to contribute for the first time and to give more."

Smaller foundations and private philanthropists will know who to speak to about grant recipients, Perrin says. He hopes that as the project progresses, grant-makers will publish assessments of grants as open data, which will provide even more information for potential grant-makers and allow them to take bigger risks based on more information.

The Big Lottery Fund has committed itself to making its data more open and now publishes grants data from 2004 onwards on the website. Dawn Austwick, who joined the BLF as chief executive in October last year and previously headed the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, one of the UK's largest independent grant-makers, says she sees the "beginnings of a movement" about big and open data and the sector. But she says the sector has to invest in the skills to analyse and use data. "We need more geeks and nerds in the sector," she says.

When she first joined the sector 30 years ago, says Austwick, no one had any fundraisers, and 20 years ago there were no web designers. "This is the next skill set that we are going to need," she says. "People used to say they could not afford web designers, but somehow it happened, and now you cannot imagine not having web-based communications as part of your marketing."

Austwick says the BLF is speaking to other funders about how to work collaboratively and make their data more open. "If we are able to share more data, it opens up some really interesting opportunities," she says. For example, a lot of funders ask applicants for the same information but in different formats; if beneficiary organisations publish a common set of data that grant-makers ask for, funders can take it from their sites, she says.

Open and big data are attracting interest from across the sector, but Austwick says that some people remain nervous about it and how to gain the necessary expertise. "We've got to get over that hump," she says. "I'm passionate about this, but not because I come from a technology background; I just see the potential."

Publication by funders of their grant data will reveal, over a period of time, how much money has gone into which issues in which areas and whether less money has gone to one part of the country than to another. "It will enable us to ask more informed questions and talk as a group about why this might be something we can collectively address," Austwick says.

- Read our analysis on how big data can help charities be more effective

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