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In the first of a series of blogs from the Data Collective, a new organisation to support data experts working in civil society, Giselle Cory looks at what we've learned so far.

Many charities are developing their use of data to inform their work. The Data Collective is a community of people doing just that. Kicked off in November last year, the community now has nearly 200 people as part of its email network, and 70 in the Slack community. Join us!

As we develop a space for the community, we’ve been talking to people from charities and other non-profit organisations about what they need from it. Here’s what we have found so far.

For and by social sector representatives 

When it comes to membership of the community, a few things stick out. Firstly, the importance of this being a community made up of and for people working in the social sector. We’ve seen that many others are interested - in particular, consultants, academics and others with an interest in the sector. But our interviewees have told us about the need for a safe space for social sector representatives to talk about their work, and critically, to talk to each other! 

In a similar vein, interviewees have pointed out that having a highly inclusive community can skew outcomes, as the direction of travel is shaped by those with the resources to act (and to do so quickly). Given resource constraints, this can often be those coming from outside of the sector, rather than social sector organisations. This can result in the social sector losing ownership of data initiatives. In this way, inclusivity can actually crowd social sector data initiatives. Though we recognise and value the role of consultants and others working in or for the sector, the Data Collective will focus on social sector representatives themselves.

Learners, doers, and how to share insight 

Within this audience of social sector representatives, we have found there are two main groups: those that are doing more advanced data work in their organisations, and those who aren’t yet but want to learn from others. It’s worth noting that these groups are not divided by obvious parameters - like size of organisation or focus area - but come from all corners of the sector. 

We want the Collective to be accessible to both groups, and so we need to make sure that there is a space for those who are further along in their data journey to talk to others at a similar stage, and that any learnings and case studies from these organisations are accessible to those who aren’t present for those conversations. This means writing about and sharing this information, and doing so in an accessible way. It also means doing what we can to encourage other networks to make use of and translate these resources for their members, in a way that is appropriate to them. Which brings me onto…

Network of networks

The community is focused around data use - but that’s just one of many reasons why people want to come together. Interviewees told us that the community should act as a network of networks, connected to existing communities that coalesce around a given place, cause (like homelessness or the youth sector), or shared organisational characteristics (like small charities). Data use is a thread that runs through these other communities of practice / interest, and we should ensure they are well meshed. This also underlines the importance of producing resources that others can reuse and share, so representatives from these communities can disseminate these with their networks.

What do social sector data folk need?

Often conversations about data can be assumed to be technical: how to analyse a given dataset, or what systems/software needs to be in place. Our research has underlined the need for discussions on the strategic and cultural side of data transformation. Community members want discussion and support on topics like:

  • How do we convince leadership about the importance of good data use?
  • How do we have useful conversations with the Local Authority about data use and data sharing?
  • Our data is valuable to us - how do we share it without undermining that value?

People in the community want support from their peers. And that supports needs to focus on how you might get things done, considering all the relationships that need to happen around data work. We’re keen to surface examples from the community on what has worked, and why. 

Our research has found that people in the community also want practical support on technical issues. This is an especially crucial need for those who are working alone or in small teams.

Get involved

If you’d like to shape the future of the Data Collective, and represent a service delivery charity – join the Data Collective, sign up here!

More from the community

Here’s some recent pieces shared by members of the community:

Our Catalyst network - what we do

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale