Big Data For Social Good In London

Charities are scared of a post EU future, but data may help them


A survey in 2009 run by the Charity Commission in the UK found that 52% of charities had been impacted by the 2008 recession. Later research from NCVO then showed that 19% of charities experienced an increase in demand for their services alongside a decrease of 70,000 people in the sector between 2010 and 2011, a 2% drop in the number of donors and 13% decrease in the total amount donated.

This had a significant impact on not only the roles within the sector, but also in the service they could provide for the people they were trying to help.

The UK is currently staring down the barrel of another recession following the referendum to leave the EU in June, with GDP growth forecasts slashed. This, combined with the loss of £200m of EU funding to UK charities, means they are in an uncertain and precarious situation.

This threat is worrying charities across London, but several charities are attempting to negate these issues through adopting a data-driven approach to their fundraising and charitable programs.

Duncan Ross is one of the people helping this process as the founder and director of Datakind UK, which places data science volunteers within charities and social organizations. He argues that the issues that charities in the UK capital face is similar to what private sector businesses have been facing for several years, 'Decisions in all sectors have typically been made by people who have grown up in the organizations and are based on their experience.' Through changing these habits, charities have the opportunity to explore new revenue opportunities and measure the true success of their current programs.

One charity that has been spearheading this move to a data-driven charity sector is Friends of the Earth. The organization took to tracking their outcomes, testing and measuring supporter response to their ideas in order to inform future fundraising techniques. Through this work they decided to cut their Street Fundraising efforts, a traditionally large part of their income, to concentrate on more data-driven techniques. This gives them a far more predictable fundraising forecast and strategy, which can then be amended throughout the year to maximize donations.

However, it is not only in collecting money to undertake charitable work where data is having an impact, it is also impacting how charities can undertake their work.

Macmillan Cancer Support are a prime example of this, with them utilizing NHS data to gain insights into how healthcare providers could improve cancer care. 'Charities can be entrepreneurial in terms of saying where significant interventions can be made using big and open data because we are not caught up in the daily hurly-burly of the NHS' believes Mike Hobday, director of policy and research at the charity. The entrepreneurial work being done so far has helped to identify why some patients with the same cancers cost more or less to treat (the quality of nursing in a hospital) and also given insight into the need for specific services in particular areas.

According to Third Sector, 'The model developed by the charity's team of data scientists predicts how many people will be diagnosed with cancer, what types they will have, how many will die and what their needs will be in one to three years' time.' This will create an incredibly powerful resource not only for identification, but also to help measure the success they are having in their future work.

As we face uncertainty around many charities in the UK, especially smaller ones, these kinds of data-driven approaches will help to alleviate the pressure they face and hopefully create a strong foundation for them to continue helping the most vulnerable in society. 

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