Believe the hype: Big data can have a big social impact

Annika Small at the Guardian: “Given all the hype around so called big data at the moment, it would be easy to dismiss it as nothing more than the latest technology buzzword. This would be a mistake, given that the application and interpretation of huge – often publicly available – data sets is already supporting new models of creativity, innovation and engagement.
To date, stories of big data’s progress and successes have tended to come from government and the private sector, but we’ve heard little about its relevance to social organisations. Yet big data can fuel big social change.
It’s already playing a vital role in the charitable sector. Some social organisations are using existing open government data to better target their services, to improve advocacy and fundraising, and to support knowledge sharing and collaboration between different charities and agencies. Crowdsourcing of open data also offers a new way for not-for-profits to gather intelligence, and there is a wide range of freely available online tools to help them analyse the information.
However, realising the potential of big and open data presents a number of technical and organisational challenges for social organisations. Many don’t have the required skills, awareness and investment to turn big data to their advantage. They also tend to lack the access to examples that might help demystify the technicalities and focus on achievable results.
Overcoming these challenges can be surprisingly simple: Keyfund, for example, gained insight into what made for a successful application to their scheme through using a free, online tool to create word clouds out of all the text in their application forms. Many social organisations could use this same technique to better understand the large volume of unstructured text that they accumulate – in doing so, they would be “doing big data” (albeit in a small way). At the other end of the scale, Global Giving has developed its own sophisticated set of analytical tools to better understand the 57,000+ “stories” gathered from its network.
Innovation often happens when different disciplines collide and it’s becoming apparent that most value – certainly most social value – is likely to be created at the intersection of government, private and social sector data. That could be the combination of data from different sectors, or better “data collaboration” within sectors.
The Housing Association Charitable Trust (HACT) has produced two original tools that demonstrate this. Its Community Insight tool combines data from different sectors, allowing housing providers easily to match information about their stock to a large store of well-maintained open government figures. Meanwhile, its Housing Big Data programme is building a huge dataset by combining stats from 16 different housing providers across the UK. While Community Insight allows each organisation to gain better individual understanding of their communities (measuring well-being and deprivation levels, tracking changes over time, identifying hotspots of acute need), Housing Big Data is making progress towards a much richer network of understanding, providing a foundation for the sector to collaboratively identify challenges and quantify the impact of their interventions.
Alongside this specific initiative from HACT, it’s also exciting to see programmes such as 360giving, which forge connections between a range of private and social enterprises, and lays foundations for UK social investors to be a significant source of information over the next decade. Certainly, The Big Lottery Fund’s publication of open data late last year is a milestone which also highlights how far we have to travel as a sector before we are truly “data-rich”.
At Nominet Trust, we have produced the Social Tech Guide to demonstrate the scale and diversity of social value being generated internationally – much of which is achieved through harnessing the power of big data. From Knewton creating personally tailored learning programmes, to Cellslider using the power of the crowd to advance cancer research, there is no shortage of inspiration. The UN’s Global Pulse programme is another great example, with its focus on how we can combine private and public sources to pin down the size and shape of a social challenge, and calibrate our collective response.
These examples of data-driven social change demonstrate the huge opportunities for social enterprises to harness technology to generate insights, to drive more effective action and to fuel social change. If we are to realise this potential, we need to continue to stretch ourselves as social enterprises and social investors.”