“We don’t need data – we know our areas”

A recent comment from somebody doing excellent work in community regeneration and housing – “we don’t need data, we already know our areas” – got me thinking about how we use data and information in our work.

Community organisations, housing associations, local neighbourhood groups and other local teams know their patches. It’s not going to be news to them that the data shows their area is: (please tick all that apply etc) thriving, depressed, dynamic, run-down, entrepreneurial, vulnerable, resilient, buoyant etc. And yet, in our work with organisations across the UK I’ve seen lots of ways that community data (published by government as open data) helps organisations. Three examples:

1) Knowing where we can do more. Most organisations know about the people they are working with. But far fewer know about people they could be working with. Data on the local community, linked to data on users, can help. In the DataBridge project we helped six local community organisations use government data to better target services, identifying areas and groups with high levels of need that they were not reaching. That in turn got them planning how to extend support services into those areas. Helping people understand why open data is relevant to their services / operations can be a powerful part of improving those services.

2) Making difficult choices in a fair and open way. You might know your area, but how well do you know all the areas (geographical and service) that your organisation works in? And how those areas have changed recently? How would you prioritise internal resources aimed at particular service groups between different areas? How would you bid to run services from an external commissioner / funder? Bluntly, I believe that allocating scarce resources between worthy choices needs quantitative evidence, not just on-the-ground knowledge.

3) Showing “what we do is critical”. Data that describes your services / area / community – and compares to others – is powerful stuff to partners, funders and donors, frontline staff, service users, senior managers, trustees & board members, volunteers, media and the rest. As a volunteer or staff member, I would want an organisation to be able to demonstrate that they know the communities they’re working in, and how they’re making an impact. As a funder or commissioner, I’d want to know the same.

I’ve heard many variants on “we don’t need data, we already know”. Yes, it’s important not to get carried away by open data, shiny visuals and detailed research reports (“change is not about lines on maps” as the excellent Jess Steele said at a recent Change in East London event). But the bottom-line is that better data and information can fill in the gaps, aid difficult decision-making and engage key groups in improving local services. We should use them.

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