Data Evolution: How the Social Sector is Adapting

December 9, 2015

Guest blog by DataKind UK General Manager Emma Prest 

It seems that just about every nonprofit organization wants to get more sophisticated at using data to further its mission, but many aren't sure how to get started. How can they use data for decision-making, to increase impact, or target beneficiaries? How can they use data to be more effective and efficient in changing the world for the better?

Before an organization can tackle these questions though, they need to start with the basics. How are they using their data now? What are their peers doing? What could they do, and what should they do next?

At DataKind UK we have been lucky enough to work with a number of social sector organizations that have embraced data and now use it in imaginative ways to power their work. We’ve also worked with organizations that haven’t adopted new data practices. Why do some of our projects act as catalysts for organizational behavior change when others don’t? We suspect it’s because some organizations are more ripe and ready to work with data than others, but we need the data to support our hunch.

At DataKind, we think of data science as a journey. That means those of us trying to help social sector organizations harness the power of data science need to ask ourselves similar questions. How do we understand an organization’s level of readiness when it comes to collecting, managing and using data and how do we help them along the path?

In my work as General Manager for DataKind UK, I can say we’ve faced this challenge day in and day out. And, as we’ve learned to tackle it, we’ve realized we want to systematize and share our approach to understanding organizational data maturity so we can better tailor our services and measure our effectiveness. By documenting what we learn about how social sector organisations evolve in their data practices, other nonprofits can in turn assess where they’re at and figure out what their own data journey ahead might look like.

That’s why we’re proud to launch our new Data Evolution project up with Data Orchard to better understand organizations' data journeys. With generous support from Teradata and the Access Social Investment Foundation, we’re hoping to develop a framework for social sector organizations to better understand their current level of data science readiness and how they can do even more.

We will start by talking to charities and social enterprises in the UK to find out how they are and aren’t using data, exploring what motivates organizations to adopt new data practices and what obstacles hold them back. How can data transform how they operate? What kinds of support do social sector organizations need to change how they work with data? How much of a role does organizational culture play? What kind of internal technical capacity is needed?

We are not the only ones thinking about this kind of thing. Our friends over at Data Science for Social Good recently wrote about what makes a sound data-for-good project and we couldn’t agree more. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the UK is surveying the charity sector to understand how charities are using data. New Philanthropy Capital is thinking about the support available to social sector organizations and looking at what data literacy gaps need plugging.

We’re excited to contribute to these efforts and start our own journey delving into these questions. If you too are working on this, we'd love to talk. Get in touch and look out for future updates as our work progresses.

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