Setting up a data standard for the voluntary sector: what we’ve learned
At 360Giving, we help funders in the UK publish open data about their grants, and help people to use this data to improve charitable giving. We do this to support our vision: for grantmaking in the UK to be more informed, effective and strategic.
This month, in line with the Digital Fund’s Learning and Insight theme of Collaboration and Ecosystems, we wanted to share about how 360Giving (funded by The National Lottery Community Fund) has built off the power of ecosystems to be what it is today, and what we’ve learned it takes to work in successful collaborations.
We have grown out of several ecosystems and sometimes we are a bridge between them. 360Giving started as a collaboration between funders, and this continues to underpin all our work. We work in the funder ecosystem, both directly with grantmakers and alongside their infrastructure organisations and networks. We also provide a platform for grants data that is deepening the understanding of the sector. We’re a small organisation (of four full-time equivalent staff) with an ambitious strategy — many of our programmes and services are delivered with partners who increase our capacity and broaden our expertise.
It’s been five years since we were established, and over 140 funders are now publishing data about their grants openly in the 360Giving Data Standard. There is also a growing community of data users forming around the dataset, and we are establishing our position in the charity data ecosystem. And equally important to our work is our collaboration with open data experts to develop and maintain the 360Giving Data Standard.
Open data is a team sport
We were inspired by global open data initiatives that used open data standards to increase transparency and accountability. For example, the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which focuses on international aid, and the Open Contracting Partnership, which focuses on government procurement.
Our Standard uses other standards — for currencies, country codes and for identifying organisations — all developed and maintained by their own communities. Our technical partners Open Data Services (who developed the 360Giving Data Standard, our search-engine for grants data GrantNav and our Datastore) specialise in supporting open data standards, so we directly benefit from sharing tools and good practice. Everything developed is open source and openly licensed, so we re-use and adapt approaches and policies between us, and exchange learning with other open data standards at different stages of development.
A strong charity data ecosystem needs good technical infrastructure
Over the past year we’ve been building the 360Giving Datastore to put our tools and systems on more robust footing, and facilitate easier access to the data for researchers, analysts and app developers. Launched in February 2020, it ensures that as the 360Giving dataset and interest in its use grows, we’re able to meet that demand, and incorporate data from other sources, such as the charity regulators and ONS, to combine it with grants data.
Open data standards make it easier to build communities around use of the data because it comes with clear instructions and permissions for use. I remember our excitement when we discovered 360Giving data being used via Twitter; a volunteer-led open data group called Bath Hacked had used it to produce a map of grants received in their region. It was the first time the data was being used without our prior knowledge, proving that people with data skills and familiarity with open data could put the information to use.
A challenge for open data initiatives — where information and tools are made freely available — is that you can’t always know how and where the data is being used. Ironically, a key sign of success is that people don’t need to ask for help to use it.
Thinking globally, acting locally
We need the number of 360Giving and charity data users to grow, which is why — along with helping funders to publish data — we run programmes to develop skills in exploring and using data, and build tools and platforms to support this. Our work draws on the global ecosystem of good practice in data literacy and skills development, taking what works and applying approaches to the UK funding context.
Originally created by School of Data our Data Expeditions — developed and delivered in partnership with Open Data Manchester — help an organisation or a group of individuals learn new skills using data. Our first virtual expedition will see us adapting to our socially distanced era. Our Data Champions programme brings grantmakers together to collaborate and learn how to grow a data culture in their funding organisations, providing a peer learning space for the data curious to discuss challenges. Our resource library, which started life in our Data Champions pilot as a simple Google Sheet, is a collaboratively built list of resources that can help people in grantmaking — or people interested in funding — to use and benefit from data. We run the Data Champions programme with FabRiders, benefiting from their experience helping social change advocates and activists around the world to utilise technologies, and their role co-chairing the Data Literacy Consortium, a network of practice for building data culture.
Building the charity data ecosystem
The digital capabilities of the sector has developed significantly in recent years. It is possible to identify a ‘Tech for Good’ ecosystem, thanks to early support from funders like Social Tech Trust, Comic Relief, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the National Lottery Community Fund’s own Digital Fund, along with the work of organisations such as CAST and the Catalyst Initiative.
Data is a core component of digital transformation but a specific ‘charity data ecosystem’ is much earlier in its development. The first ‘Data for Good’ conference in 2018 was a key step in shining a light on the community.
Publishing open grants data is becoming the norm for UK funders. Through the COVID-19 crisis funders have been collaborating more, and data has played a vital role through shared funding platforms such as the London Community Response Fund, and the publication of emergency funding, visualised in our COVID-19 Grants Tracker. At the start of the crisis we updated a visualisation we first created in 2018, a chord diagram that shows which funders share grant recipients. This kind of analysis opens up the potential to map funder ecosystems through the connections between funders and recipients.
However, the crisis has also brought into sharper focus what vital information is missing: about people’s needs, which communities are most affected, and what organisations and infrastructure exists that can deliver much needed support. When data doesn’t already exist — or when what is available is fragmented — there are no shortcuts to getting the information into a usable format. There is an opportunity now to use data gaps to advocate for building the charity data ecosystem, and support for better data collection and infrastructure. The idea of a Data Collective is a welcome first step towards that goal.
Communication is key
The sector is embracing digital technology and starting to see data as an essential tool. Being able to draw on established international ecosystems of organisations developing and supporting open data standards, data skills and literacy has allowed us to build a critical mass of organisations willing to join us in publishing and using open grants data in the UK — something that would have seemed far fetched a few years ago.
Open data standards have been described as tools for mass collaboration and it has been exciting to see a broad range of funders, representing charitable, corporate, public sectors, from large organisations to trustee-run family trusts become involved in sharing grants data — all contributing to a dataset that gets more useful with each new organisation taking part.
In practice, however, there are barriers: publishing and working with data can be intimidating for people without data skills, so the full benefits tend to be realised by those with technical expertise. We have always worked with partners and in the open but we have learned that a clear communications strategy is needed to effectively reach the right audiences and facilitate collaboration at scale. In 2020 we refreshed our brand, and launched a short illustrated video to tell the story of our work, visualised as an ecosystem of interconnected users. This feels like the perfect image to sum up the work ahead for 360Giving and our community.
360Giving has been funded by The National Lottery Community Fund’s UK Portfolio. It is not part of the Digital Fund cohort of grantholders but the grant is being stewarded by the Digital Fund team.