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Opening doors event – exploring open data for charities

12 March 2012

1 March 2012

This event was jointly hosted by Nominet Trust, NCVO and the Big Lottery Fund. We had a fantastic turnout of around 100 people, from charities large and small, and this note attempts to capture key highlights of the day.


“I had no idea Florence Nightingale was an open data pioneer – listening carefully at today’s #opencharities event” tweeted Peter Wanless, Big Lottery Fund’s chief executive, at the start of the day.

Indeed, in 1856, Florence used data diagrams to show that more soldiers were dying of disease than injury during the Crimean war. But what was the relevance of this for charities today?

Undoubtedly a lot was going on with data before 1856. But as Dan Sutch from Nominet Trust illustrated in his opening presentation, the technological revolution of the last two decades has unlocked a huge amount of new potential.

Data helps us prove points. It also helps us tell compelling stories about what we do. It helps us assess and evidence our impact. It helps us collaborate with and engage our partners, beneficiaries, staff and funders in our work. But it’s definitely a journey to get there, and as our next speaker said, you may not yet know where ‘there’ is!


“We knew about the inverse care law; and we saw it in our data. We wanted to do things differently, to make sure that those in greatest need were able to access our service.”  Next up to speak was Ian Carey – Chief Executive of Barnsley Hospice.

When Ian arrived at Barnsley Hospice, he wanted to create a Google map of all their referrals. Exactly as the inverse care law predicts, the map showed that the poorest areas of Barnsley were making the fewest referrals to the hospice. Crucially, Ian and his team decided to act on this information.

A few years later, and the pattern is changing. As a result of their increased outreach and marketing, GPs and consultants are making more referrals from disadvantaged communities.

Meanwhile, Barnsley Hospice has upped its data game considerably, reporting on all areas of performance proactively. Today, the Hospice has more beds and has increased its cash reserves, while continuing to provide high-quality patient-centred care to people from right across Barnsley.


“Where does your money come from?” was the first question posed at the Improving Fundraising workshop.  Unsurprisingly, these days relatively little money grows on trees – and for many organisations working out where their money has been coming from, and where it hasn’t, can be a good starting point.

What other data might help your organisation in raising more funds? For Danny Antrobus of South Yorkshire Funding Advice Bureau, the answer was knowing more about which funders are out there and getting good data about what they’re already funding. Whereas for Diane Morrison at Flack, a homeless charity based in Cambridge, the barriers were more around being able to demonstrate their social value to funders.

Delegates’ own needs were diverse . Some wanted to make better use of their own data, others wanted to be better able to interpret Government or other open data sources.  A number of tools were signposted that could help delegates in doing this, including Google Refine and Exhibit,, Openly Local, Numberhood, and

A final word of advice was offered by BIG – Using data effectively can help your funding application stand out from a pile of hundreds. Explain how many local people need your support and how you know this. Explain why your approach works and how you know this. The more specific your evidence, the better case you will be able to make, and the more we’ll have to consider.

Over at the Impact workshop, Adrian Green and Nick Drew described how they had grown tired of gathering data that ‘fed the beast’ – building up a store of information that was collected for the sake of it, cumbersome to access and underused.

With the help of data guru Steven Flowers, Nick from Sandwell CVS was now able to produce eye-catching and flexible reports from the Sandwell database of 900 VCS organisations, using the open source ‘Exhibit’ tool. Simply using postcode data and combining it with publicly available data scraped from different sources such as the Charity Commission and Companies House using Google Refine, they had been able to map organisations to wards and local authority areas.

Meanwhile Adrian of Sussex Pathways was also learning to use Google docs and Dropbox to enable more collaborative working practices. This was creating a virtuous loop, helping to improve their impact while reporting on it.

Key messages from the session were about the benefits arising from better use of existing data, rather than the creation of new data. Delegates also considered how data becomes more accurate once put out into the public domain, enabling it to be cross-referenced with reliable, complementary data sources.

James Mitchell from Family Matters gives us his feedback on the day so, far:


Q: What do London toilets, youth arts organisations and volunteering opportunities in Gloucester have in common? A: They have all been mapped using open data!

At the Mapping workshop after lunch, the team from Volunteering Gloucester demonstrated how they’d been mapping volunteers and local volunteering vacancies.  Google Analytics and a tool called Batch Geo had enabled them to tidy up their postcodes data and upload it onto a free map. The results were very interesting – highlighting disparity between where volunteers were needed and where they were coming from.

Meanwhile, Toby Blume from Urban Forum was interested in how mapping could help their members network more effectively with each other. With the help of data guru Tim Davies, they transformed their existing basic Google map of members into a much richer resource – with more information about each member, data and picture content. An important part of Toby’s approach had been getting permission from his members first – ensuring Urban Forum stayed on the right side of Data Protection legislation.

Will Perrin shares his impressions of the day so far, and the challenges for groups using open data:


NCVO’s Karl Wilding did a valiant job of summing up a huge day with just a handful of Star Wars Lego in the plenary session. Drawing out issues from governance and tools, culture to skills, we reflected on the many factors affecting VCS relationship with open data. The potential is there for more organisations to get involved – but more information, support and funding would make a real difference in helping people get their plans off the ground.

A key message from Will Perrin of Indigo Trust, was for VCS organisations to simply take the next step – do something simple and relevant for your organisation.

Will also appealed to funders and supporters of the open data agenda to keep it simple. A tower of babel image clearly resonated with many in the audience – it can literally feel like we’re speaking different languages when it comes to data and technology, when what’s really important for players like BIG, Nominet and NCVO is to communicate clearly about the benefits and lead by example.

Dan Sutch sums up the day, and the challenges for groups hoping to use open data:

So, the day ended, but the door is open. Thanks to all who came and contributed.

See for more comments, signposts and ideas, and watch this space for more open data news later this year.

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