What if we could use data for good?

By David McNeill on 22nd Mar 2018

It’s been a week where the nefarious use of personal data by Cambridge Analytica has dominated news headlines. What you might have missed is that this week Scotland is hosting a celebration of the use of data (in its broadest sense!) for good.

DataFest logoDozens of events are taking place as part of DataFest18, promoting Scotland as an epicentre of international data-driven problem solving. It’s organised by The Data Lab, an innovation centre supported by the Scottish Funding Council, which aims to empower industry, public sector and universities to harness data, and generate its economic, scientific and social benefits.

On Tuesday we hosted a fringe event exploring data in the third sector. We looked at the developing movement to publish open data from the third sector (the topic of a separate blog coming soon) as well as examples from the third sector of data being used to inform decision making.

It may seem obvious that data should be used to inform decisions, but too often in organisations of all sizes, and in all sectors, decisions are based on the hippo.

What’s the hippo? The highest paid person’s opinion.

Also, the issues that we’re trying to solve in the third sector are complex. From tackling poverty to promoting health, multi-faceted approaches are needed to address the underlying causes. This was brought sharply into focus over the past few weeks with some of the reaction to Cancer Research UK’s latest campaign on obesity.

Our activities must be based on the evidence available on what works. To be effective, we need to be data driven organisations.

Some organisations take this to the extreme. Did you know that Google tested 41 shades of blue for the colours of links in adverts? It might seem daft, but it turns out that there is a shade of blue that results in a $200m increase in revenue.

Data in the third sector

So, what is the potential for data to support third sector organisations to maximise their potential?

My first piece of advice would be to watch this video from Jake Porway, Founder of DataKind – an organisation that brings volunteer data scientists together with non-profits. There is huge potential, but a key challenge is defining specific problems to explore can be harder than finding solutions. An exciting data science project isn’t just about analysing what data you have; it’s about looking for data that will provide insights on the problem. You might then use those insights to target your resources better.


At a global level, Unicef are collaborating with partners across the public, private and third sectors to gather data – including real-time data such as locations – to enable them to better respond to humanitarian crises. They are using data to predict where aid needs to be and where to target resources to prevent problems from occurring.

Closer to home, Citizen’s Advice in England and Wales sought the support of DataKind to help them better use their data to inform their work and spot emerging issues quicker. The first eight minutes of this video highlight how volunteer data scientists were able to bring together different sources of data to present better insights into what issues people were seeking support with.

More recently, StreetLeague have been praised for opening up their data on the impact of their work. Their real-time dashboard provides an insight into the work they are doing and outcomes, providing greater transparency on their work. They have used Microsoft’s Power BI platform to allow visitors to the website to explore their data in-depth.

In 2016, SCVO worked with academics from the Universities of Stirling and St. Andrews to explore the use of data in the third sector in Scotland. A range of case studies are available on the project website, as well as a toolkit to help you think about your organisations data needs.

Know of other great examples of the use of data in the third sector? We’d love to hear from you.