Cathy Pharoah: We should embrace open data - but with caution

Civil society organisations should promote open access to information, writes our columnist, but should also be aware that some want to use it as a stick to beat the sector with

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

Data has suddenly gone from being the nerdy and boring obsession of researchers like me to a hot topic. And as government and others open up their spending spreadsheets, there are growing calls for the sector to do the same.

Recent events have shown that it's going to be increasingly important for the sector to get a grip of the open-data agenda. The potential of internet and IT systems to gather and combine information on a massive scale, coupled with a demand for increasing transparency in the growing stores of detail on all aspects of our lives that large corporations are building, have raised expectations about the revelatory power of data.

'Big data' and 'open data' are increasingly seen not only as fundamental tools for civil society, but also as something to which civil society organisations themselves should subscribe. Organisations such as the Nominet Trust and the Indigo Trust, which held a seminar to explore the opportunities for open data in foundation grant-making, are leading the way in the UK, and many initiatives are also under way in the US. But the recent government announcement that its new public database would "open the lid" on charity finances illustrates the tensions underlying the open-data process - it is being projected as both an opportunity and a threat.

The Charity Finance Group was right to call the announcement "inappropriate". If we want charities to provide more data in ways that are increasingly useful to donors and funders, this can be done only in an atmosphere of trust, knowledge-sharing and learning. Trying to make the case for data publication by suggesting that it might open the lid to unnamed horrors is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

It is naive to think there are no risks in more open approaches to data. Some individuals may try to use data as a stick for beating organisations or their beneficiaries, and appear to want it for that purpose. Some people, for example, still think charities' activities come free, or that many of the poor are undeserving, so it is important that the sector is prepared to explain itself and pre-empt criticism that is based on misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

There is a general presumption that data always depicts facts in neutral and objective ways. People refer to 'data mining' or 'liberating' or 'unleashing' data, as if data were a natural commodity lying around to be used. This can be misleading. Data is something that individuals or specific organisations build, selecting some items and leaving out others. It usually has significant gaps, for reasons of cost, sensitivity, anonymity or difficulty of collection. Civil society organisations should be at the forefront of promoting open access to information, but should also play a role in ensuring that data is used and interpreted appropriately, and that the vulnerable are protected. They should also be more willing to produce and publish their own data in useful and comparable ways.

Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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