Technological advancements are transforming the operating context at break-neck pace, and project partners are concerned about the preparedness of the third sector if it is to future-proof its vitally important work to ensure it remains relevant in the face of changing needs, new service delivery channels and opportunities to deliver social impact. We are especially concerned to ensure it is supported to appreciate and engage in the development of data assets going forward, because whilst Neelie Kroes (VP EU Commission) recently described data as the new ‘gold', it is manifestly not the case that all sectors are aware of, capable and/or supported to adapt to this vital resource becoming increasingly common currency.
Governments have concentrated almost exclusively upon the scope for closer working between Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and the private sector to unlock the potential for greater efficiencies, improved outcomes and economic growth harboured by personal, organisational and public open data. In the UK, this has driven significant investment into, for example, the midata initiative which is concerned with affording consumers increasing access to their personal data in a portable electronic format as well as high profile health data sharing initiatives, and the work of the Connected Digital Economy Catapult. It has also resulted in the establishment of the ‘What Works Network’, the Justice Data Lab and Open Data Institute start-ups like Spend Network and Carbon Culture.
However, with the exception of modest investments on the part of NESTA and Nominet Trust, policy makers and major funders have been all but silent when it comes to working with the third sector to modernise and/or innovate in the context of our increasingly data-driven society. Moreover, in the course of our work, we have identified broad-ranging challenges for community organisation seeking to engage with an increasingly data-driven landscape. These can be understood in relation to: Government policy; Central Government practice; Local Government practice; the approach of regulators, funders and social investors; and VCSE practice. However, there is, in amongst all of this, a gap in current activities that is particularly concerning, given its ramifications for the efficacy and sustainability of community organisations.
At present, the emphasis of key stakeholders is overwhelmingly upon investment in and exploration of personal and public open data. By contrast, relatively little thought has been given to the benefits of improved community organisations' data (save to evidence their impact for funders/investors or in relation to grant and contract monitoring) and, in particular, the potential for linked data between community organisations and/or across sectors - let alone, with individual service users and beneficiaries to improve social, economic and environmental outcomes.
Considerable interest now surrounds evidence-based policy-making, intelligent commissioning and, with them, calls for improved evidence of third sector impact in the course of commissioning exercises and contract negotiations. The same is true of recently introduced payment mechanisms for community organisations contracted to deliver public services; for example, where social impact bonds and payment by results contracts are concerned. All of these have in common some form of ‘data requirement’ and, yet, there remains a relative paucity of guidance for public bodies eager to engage communities in public open data re-use, commissioners tasked with delivering against the Government’s Opening Public Services agenda, and support for would–be third sector contractors in this important regard.
Paramount, in the current climate, is that commissioners expect ‘better for less’ from contractors. However, this poses significant challenges for community organisations where their awareness, capacity and ability to use data for these purposes is concerned. For example, we have encountered a number of organisations which are not permitted by existing contracts to ‘own’ or manage the data they generate in the course of service delivery to support such activities. In other instances, where community organisations haven’t operated a service in the past, they lack access to robust evidence – most often, on the grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’ and by dint of Data Protection Act provisions, which serve to restrict the vast majority of public open data to information about capital and/or infrastructure activities. We also note that there is growing concern about the exploitation of personal data by commercial organisations, such that the emphasis of policy-makers is upon personal data ownership, protection and regulation, where there could conceivably be value in promoting cooperation for mutual benefit in respect of the same.
Personal data protection and use currently occupies hotly contested territory, and serves as the backdrop against which numerous hardware projects (for example, Indie Phone) and emergent ‘data4good’ projects (for example, The Good Data and DataCoup) are being developed. Whilst their emphasis upon ‘privacy’ and ‘control over personal data’ is deemed of interest, we believe joint venturing underpinned by financial incentives for individuals need not be limited to ‘exhaust’ or Internet of Things derived data . We are therefore pleased to have secured funding from the Department for Communities and Local Goverment and the Social Investment Business to explore the potential to establish data coops underpinned by a combination of personal, organisational and public open data which, we envisage, would be asset-locked vehicles, based upon conscious contribution, and explicitly designed to deliver tangible social, economic and environmental benefits.
Related to this, we wish to explore the potential for data coops to become distributed ethical impact investment vehicles that are capable of being anchored and harnessed by VCSEs from the point of view of informing government policy development. We are mindful that there is already work underway to prototype the use of public and personal data – through, for example, the Open Data Institute’s Start-Up programme and Connected Digital Economy Catapult’s Open Data Health Platform. Nonetheless, we wish to explore whether the overarching aims and mission of an organisation could be deployed to motivate organisations as well as individuals to invest their data on an ethical footing, rather than to simply secure more narrow financial benefits.
Specifically, whilst we recognise that financial incentives will play a part in stimulating data contributions from individuals going forward, a blend of personal, organisational and public open data could underpin the development of community-led data coops - were all concerned motivated by a desire to solve specific social challenges through cooperation with a trusted vehicle. Community organisations could, in turn, seek to generate a financial return through payment by results contracts and/or social impact bonds entered into with the public sector and linked to the release of efficiency savings where they are able to identify new data-driven solutions.
Our work and discussions with local government colleagues point toward an important area of activity that would benefit from being investigated more thoroughly – namely, data-driven third sector organisations / activity. Accordingly, we have contributed to the development of national policy and practice in respect of public open data to benefit community organisations. We have also undertaken digital audits and spear-headed cutting-edge work with community organisations that are only now beginning to grapple with data collection, sharing, analysis and deployment to improve service design and address social problems through data-enhanced and data-driven social enterprise.
The data landscape is wide-ranging, and a number of interventions would benefit the sector at this juncture. However, we are now proposing to explore whether and how data might be harnessed such that community organisations are better placed to:-
In the course of undertaking this first phase of research.
The Creative Coop and its partners are socially conscious businesses working with the public, private and third sectors to explore where the real potential for taking this work forward might lie. Together, principal partners delivered Our Digital Community: an action research and learning programme to explore digital asset and enterprise development by and for communities, working with 20 third sector organisations: http://www.ourdigitalcommunity.org/ during 2013-14. If the sector is to move with the times, we believe it is incumbent upon us to increase our understanding of the implications for communities of technological change, as well as to explore how we might harness technologies to help them address persistent social challenges.