Break down the fortress: 4 reasons to use open data in non-profits

by Donata Columbro

According to the latest Aid Transparency Index, an increasing number of international agencies and governments have begun to publish their data on development funds. Some of this data are released in an open format, in full compliance with international standards such as those set forward by the IATI Convention.

Why should the third sector be interested (and educated) to use open data? In this entry, I outlined four reasons for which is make sense. In the light of my speech at the Varese News festival those reasons are:

  1. The demand for transparency keeps getting higher and higher. This is true for both governments and organizations managing public funds. Generally speaking, however, any player in the field requires a certain amount of trust from their reference community (citizens, stakeholders, volunteers, donors) to carry out his or her activities. Therefore, the public opinion has an increased need for trustworthy data, which also accessible and allow for change to be predicated upon them. The option of mandating non-profits and social enterprises alike to measure their social impact “ROI”, (meaning the “return of investment”) has already been discussed at European level. In this context, data are priceless in looking at the link between allocated resources and project outcomes, identifying excluded areas and subjects and making better decisions for the future. In other words, open data means improving accountability.
  2. It is a matter of communication. If you think about it, solutions for the world problems might already be there, but could be nested “in pdf files that nobody reads.” A recent World Bank report revealed how nearly one-third of the published reports has never been downloaded once. 40% of those was downloaded less than 100 times. Only 13% of the reports got downloaded 250 during their “shelf life”. And it is no coincidence that in 2010, the WB was one of the first international organizations to publish their database in an open format. A nice “side effect” of open data is the greater ease in producing infographics of one’s work, which is very useful in organizing contents and defining effective communication campaigns. Incidentally, the Guardian reminds us that one of the first data visualization in history was done in 1857 for the non-profit sector. During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale drew an infographic of the mortality in soldiers so she could convince Queen Victoria to improve the conditions of military shelters.
  3. UN wants it. On November 8th, the draft report on Data revolution invoked by Ban ki moon was published. It calls for a greater commitment to the impact assessment of the funded projects and the monitoring of the living conditions of the population through those data. UN agencies such as UN Global Pulse were founded on this need. They want to help NGOs and non-profit organizations to get to a greater integration with governments and businesses so to be able to use their data in the design and evaluation of nonprofit projects.
  4. Let us stir up one thing or two. We need nonprofit to champion open data. Enthusiasm during a public debate is not missing, however let us keep in mind that more data is not equivalent to better data. The provision of data that are not accurate, old and/or difficult to have access to does not lead to greater transparency, but to data overload instead. NGOs and nonprofits should champion the revolution, by implementing good practice on how open data can help change and sharing difficulties and failures as well. Data users should be involved in this process.

If you’re still confused about what open data are, check out this video from the Trentino Open Data Challenge. It is a tale about open data.



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