The recent Unlocking the Potential of Open Data event that Lasa ran was a treat. A room full of Open Data enthusiasts and some Open Data skeptics all focussed on issues around Voluntary Sector Open Data. I think some people came away with a renewed enthusiasm for the subject (I know I did), while others will have engaged and voiced concerns which are vital to allay if the process of opening data up is going to gain momentum in the voluntary sector.
One issue which arose several times in the course of the session – both the keynote and the action-focussed sessions – was one of trust. Who do you trust with your data?
— Pauline Roche (@paulineroche) September 17, 2012
There are two ways such a concern might be read:
1. Who do you trust to open your data up?
2. Who do you trust to use your data sensibly and responsibly once it has been opened?
The first question relies on an organisation identifying the data they want to open up, ensuring it is not sensitive, personal or confidential and finding someone with the requisite skills to transfer that data into a machine-readable format. Someone in the organisation with moderate ICT skills and a working knowledge of spreadsheets would be sufficient.
The second question has a rather less reassuring (for some) answer: Everyone.
If you are opening your data up it is open to everyone to use, to do with what they wish. For the most part those accessing your data will be doing so with nothing but the best of intentions; to produce tools and mash-ups which will enlighten and further the work that you and others within the sector are doing (people like these wonderful folk). However, others might not be so motivated. Journalists investigating the workings of the voluntary sector might access it and publish misleading headline-grabbing stories which undermine donors’ faith in the sector, or other organisations who are in direct competition for funding and resources might use it to enhance their own services, possibly bettering your own (this was one of the concerns raised during the Lasa event and one I will return to at a later date).
Once you publish that data you do not control who accesses it. But is the fact that opening your data might have unintended consequences (both good and bad) a reason not to publish it?
The potential for learning, sharing and the development of much needed tools and insights which arise from opening up your data are enormous and the nefarious uses that such data can be put to must be minimal. However, it is the case that some data, once opened will lead to greater accountability and transparency and, while that might not always have comfortable consequences, that in itself is no bad thing – the recent MP expenses scandal has taught us that. So, some will ask questions about administrative costs, others will demonstrate that admin costs are not a good measure of a charity.
Without data such as how many people or organisation a charity has worked with, or what impact a charity has had, the main source of data is the Charity Commission and the annual accounts – and people are going to use that data. No one would dispute that context is important, that accounts tell only a small part of the story. But if a focus on how people’s lives have been improved is more informative than how much a charity spent on stamps and paperclips last year then that data needs to be available. Concerns about misrepresentation of the sector strengthen the case for greater transparency. I think this is nicely summed up in a recent report by the Charity Commission:
The research…shows that the overwhelming majority of people believe charities should provide the public with information on ‘how they spend their money’ (96%) and on ‘how they benefit the public’ (94%). The public view on this has remained unchanged over time.
There is a trust issue for voluntary sector open data but it is one of trust in the sector itself; in what it is achieving and how it is doing it; in demonstrating that the sector is worthy of the trust that the public places in it. It is by opening up and not battening down that this trust can be strengthened.