In the grant making world we promote the generation of huge amounts of information. It manifests in a multitude of ways, piles of monitoring papers, lengthy pdfs of analysis, carefully crafted responses to outcome statements, endless applications and assessments. Far too often, argues Alice Casey from Nesta, that huge volume of information will remain locked in a closed, a two-way relationship between funder and applicant instead of creating wider benefit by being shared more widely.
In the age of big data and digital networks, information generation on such a large scale could be a powerful asset for improving decision making both for practitioners working on projects and for funders themselves, yet too often it is more or less stockpiled or scanned and summarised. Too often it is valued and retained primarily for its ‘due diligence’ and monitoring purpose rather than for the wisdom or evidence it might contain. Only small amounts of that valuable information is currently being liberated to be re-used in other ways. If we have all of this resource available, and little time to do more than process it in standard ways – why don’t we open up this repository to get some help from others in making it useful?
We know that a good way to begin is simply by publishing the data you do have in open formats. Nesta is starting to look at this in terms of how we could publish our grant data, many other organisations are also in the process of doing this. What might be possible once many more funders begin to open up their information online? For the sake of simplicity let’s put the information type into two rough categories; then make some suggestions on how we could radically change how we use this to create new knowledge and insight. By changing the way funders think about ‘reporting and evaluation’ in future we could unlock significant untapped value not only through opening up data generation and reporting processes but also by asking funded projects to publish their own reporting information online with the aim of sharing insight and becoming visible and networked with one another.
1) Wisdom of practitioners: make it visible, connected and authentic
The everyday practical insight generated by practitioners is currently hidden from view in closed reporting documents. It could benefit the projects and many others if we replace this outdated system with open online publishing of reporting information in creative formats instead of bilateral, standardised, paper reporting. The multiplier effect of this could raise ambition, inspire others, tap the interest of potential supporters and ultimately improve impact across networks of practice.
We should try this out now for a number of reasons:
a) Because we know that we cant provide all the support and coaching currently required by projects from a central source – but we do know that they can learn a great deal from each others experiences.
b) At the moment, those experiences are not visibly shared, and groups are not generally encouraged to connect with one another to raise standards of development in the sector and to combine resources.
c) Being accountable to the public as well as to the funder may raise the quality and accuracy of what is reported
d) Reporting online gives projects a web presence and raises skills and confidence in communicating online
e) We have the technology available to us at a reasonable cost
It is a great sign that BLF have also been experimenting with blogging through their Silver Dreams project which you can read more about on the BLF blog The caveat on open storytelling of any kind is that we know through pilot testing of open blog reporting for the community engagement project, Neighbourhood Challenge, that there is a requirement for a ‘back channel’ to report sensitive issues and ensure they are addressed where need be. With the right technical solution it should be possible to integrate this and other features into future products. Very interesting work has also been done through using sentiment analysis approaches through the Global Giving storytelling project using Sensemaker to understand meaning in large numbers of ‘micro narratives’.
2) Create open dashboards for our data
Creating an open dashboard series of public resources to aggregate data on key areas across the sector could generate a step-change in the way we use and liberate valuable information. This could involve focusing also on the specific indicators that can cumulatively tell us about what works in a given situation to achieve a particular impact. A number of initiatives are working on this including the drive towards Open Philanthropy from the folks at Indigo Trust. They believe that many benefits can be obtained through opening up basic data held by organisations but that the best way to approach it is through communicating the benefits, not solely through an ‘open data’ lens’.
Ideally, development of these common benefits and common information resources would also allow other organisations and individuals to re-use and combine data to create new insights on how to tackle a given problem. This may sound like a huge task but large funders like World Bank and the UN are realising that they do have the convening power to generate early versions of this kind of resource.
Imagine that instead of sending data monitoring back via a paper report, we could gather data directly inputted by projects through simple content management systems, this would then be turned into a series of live graphics which would monitor performance against indicators in real time. Unicef are testing part of this idea out in a simple way using their devtrac reporting map. In the future these graphics could also be set up to allow users to customise, model and monitor specific variables of interest as the World Bank model is beginning to test.
Visualisation tools and dashboards of different kinds are already being used in a range of different ways to gather insight, particularly in a development and aid context. Interesting providers include feedback labs , and akvo.org (whose products include real time reporting and flow )– they represent a wave of organisations trying to make the most of the network of relationships and information produced in the field and to use that in a more dynamic way. Inspiring examples of dashboard use can also be found in a range of other contexts including social media visualisations like tweetping ; city data such as this London dash and cultural institutions like the Indianapolis Museum of Modern art dashboard. All represent different ways of visualising information in useful ways. If we were to treat far more of the information we generate in this way, getting systems up and running on open source platforms it would be a powerful resource for the social sector – not just for individual organisations.
The Alliance recently published the Secrets of Success report which drew from interviews with a series of major UK funding organisations such as the BIG Lottery Fund, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Comic Relief; one of the key recommendations was around opening up in this way. Trialling methods to innovate in this space is essential to tackling social challenges of the future – we need to make the most of every asset available, that includes information and data of all kinds. Private sector organisations have been creating intelligence from their information for years –we are falling behind just when we should be using this to take strides ahead on tackling common issues that we aim to address through our funding work. It seems obvious that the best and perhaps only way to multiply those benefits to the scale required is by opening up information and collaborating in order to accelerate wider sharing of practical wisdom, and generation of insight into what works.
If you’re innovating in this area, we would love to hear more about what you’ve learned.
Alice is a Senior Development Manager in the Innovation Lab at Nesta. She is currently leading on the development of a portfolio of work looking at how digital technologies are transforming social and civic interface. She has a particular interest in how people are changing the society around them using new technology and new ways of organising, collaborating and connection from the ground up.
(The views are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence)