It’s striking how much more effort we put into evaluating whether something worked, rather than on working out what people need and want in the first place. But while it’s challenging to understand changing social needs, doing so is critical to deploying resources effectively.
Funders and charities often find themselves working in relative isolation, with little evidence to draw upon. This means decisions on funding and provision are made on the basis of inadequate data about need/demand, by people at a distance from the issue. It should be no surprise then when resources do not go to where they’re most needed, and services do not address issues as effectively as they could.
Covid brought this challenge into focus. As funders and charities scrambled to determine where and what support was most urgent, their response underlined just how important bringing together different perspectives and data were. Rapid adaptation meant connecting directly with service users or volunteers; staff and frontline experience; the charity’s own data, and the eyes and ears of local Civil Society Organisation (CSO) networks. All these voices are forms of evidence, or ‘intelligence’.
So, what individual and collective changes could we make to get better at how we use data to understand a social issue and decide what to do about it?
At the local level, we have seen what’s possible when different stakeholders come together to pool information and assess the situation together. In Barking and Dagenham for example, the BD Collective had already developed relationships with the council, community and civil society organisations, so could respond to the first lockdown with a cross-sectoral ‘reimagining’ group. They started co-designing early help for families and an adult social care package, and pooled intelligence and resources. When defining what the problems and solutions are, who’s in the room really counts. Whether ‘user’, ‘service delivery’ or ‘funder’, the ability to imagine together is invaluable – some would say our sector needs to rediscover it.
Foundations and service delivery organisations would benefit from more inclusive approaches to situation analysis, involving those experiencing an issue from the earliest stages of problem definition, question framing that drives the data collection, and through to solutions and resourcing. That includes taking a racial equity lens to the work, as Common Future and Dalberg in the US are showing, with Heron and Chorus foundations pursuing more equitable practices through community feedback on strategy, and co-creating reporting metrics. This could pave the way for inclusive decision-making and more participatory grant-making.
We can do this better by opening up data sets and making sure they are interoperable so we can collectively map need and join up our information. That can include data from central government, local authorities, but also foundations, charities, and others. When combined with other intelligence like local people’s and practitioners’ experience, cases and fellow CSOs’ reflections, this sometimes confounds charities’ preconceptions about need in the local area.
We need data that can be triangulated, curated, and shared in real time to provide organisations with the information that they need to set up services where they are needed. Shared platforms can help provide the analysis charities need. Nethope is an example of organisations coming together to provide the technology needed to use data well. It is a consortium of nearly 60 non-profits, technology companies, and funding partners, that use technology and data to provide up to date information to help charities innovate. It works with organisations like Microsoft, Facebook, and Google as well as non-profits to provide crisis informatics allowing organisations to see what is happening on the ground in real time.
For example, during the hurricanes in the Caribbean in 2017, the storms had knocked out power and phone in most places, making working together more difficult. Facebook, a long-time partner, provided anonymised location data of users prior to the storm, to help locate people, and the Nethope Crisis Informatics team visualised the data to provide a mapping tool to help partners establish new public Wi-Fi spots and help speed the recovery efforts. It is currently working on how it can use the collective knowledge of its partners to ensure that no marginalised or remote people are left behind during the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, building on its earlier success with the Ebola vaccine in 2014.
This model where infrastructure is centrally resourced, triangulating data sources from different areas, and using visualisation efforts to make it more understandable, is a good model that could be used in more places across the charity sector. The resourcing for this difficult data gathering and analysis lies outside of delivery organisations, but the data can be shared to allow delivery organisations to provide a better response. This may be better sharing of data about needs as Nethope helps organisations do. Or it might be better sharing of outcomes data, to allow organisations to think about how they feed into the bigger picture, where their resources are most needed and how they can have a bigger impact.
We’re now asking:
- Is triangulation between data sets and other forms of intelligence possible at a collective level, to support needs or situation analysis, and how scalable is this?
- What are the barriers and enablers to more inclusive situation analysis, both at the sector-level, and at the organisational level?
- What infrastructure would be needed, and how could this be coordinated?
We’d love to know what you think in response to these questions. Sign up to our mailing list to stay informed and comment below with your thoughts, ideas and what else we should be asking…