Panning for gold – sifting through a river of data

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More and more, community organisations need to demonstrate that they are making evidence based decisions. Quite rightly too, as this ensures projects and programmes are targeted to where they will have the biggest impact.  Funding applications have become more rigorous and competitive, and simply “knowing” your areas, is no longer enough to guarantee funding for projects. Community organisations need to be able to substantiate their claims and proposals, in a succinct and robust manner.

This is all very well, however not everybody has a background in data and research. And with an ever-growing list of ‘things to do’, it can be a difficult and daunting prospect to know where to start and where to look – or even what to look for. A bit like panning for gold.

For those starting on your journey of sifting through the river of data that is out there, here are a few tips to set you on your way.

Start with a rationale

Before you dive straight into the vast amounts of data available, make sure you are clear on why you are looking for data in the first place. This will help you to stay on topic and narrow down your search for data – making sure the river you are panning, actually contains gold.

Have a think about what story you are trying to get across. Who is your audience? What question are you asking? What answer do you have in mind? Bear in mind that your goal is to build a watertight case. Yes, it can be a narrative – but one supported by evidence.

All of this will help you to crystallise what ‘gold’ looks like for you. No use panning for gold if there is no market to sell it in, is there?

Finding the data you need

You have your rationale. There is data everywhere. But how do you go about ‘striking gold’?

  • Make sure you spend enough time exploring. There are so many streams of data available. Spend some time acquainting yourself with what is out there. Then choose the options that work best for you.
  • Use industry standard datasets. We are creatures of habit, and there are certain datasets that people know and love (The English Indices of Deprivation, for example, that OCSI updated last year). Using data from these widely known sources will add extra credibility to your story and make your argument more persuasive.
  • Look at the metadata. Metadata (information that describes or gives information about another set of data) is just as important as the data itself when it comes to supporting your argument. Is the data recent enough to be relevant to your story? Where has the data come from? Is the data granular enough to be useful? Can you use the data to make comparisons over time?
  • Use data that is in a format that is most useful for your project. Data comes in all shapes and sizes. The format that you need will heavily depend on what you want to use the data for. If you simply want to copy and paste a few figures and tables, then PDF will likely suffice. However, if you want to do any of your own analysis, look out for data in CSV format or similar.

Make it easier for next time

To make this process easier the next time round, keep a record of where you have looked – and note whether it was useful or interesting. Next time, you’ll then be able to head straight to these gold filled rivers, rather than wasting your time with dried up streams. Why not help others have an easier time, by publishing your findings in the open?

Other resources for your data tool belt

You don’t have to set off on your journey empty-handed. These resources are a good starting point to set you on the right track.

  • Local Information Systems and open data sites: Many local authorities have their own open data platforms, which gives users access to data and reports for their local areas. For example, Brighton & Hove City Council and Hounslow Council have open data sites, powered by OCSI’s Local Insight
  • : The UK government releases a lot of public data and brings this all together in one searchable place
  • ODI: The Open Data Institute train and collaborate with individuals around the world, to promote innovation through open data. You may want to take a look at their one day training course ‘Finding stories in open data.’
  • ODI nodes: If you are interested in how to use open data, it is also worth connecting with local groups working and sharing ideas on this arena. ODI Nodes are a good starting point.

And of course, you can always get in touch with one of the team at OCSI, to see how we can support you to find gold in a river of data.

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