OCVA is Giving Away its Knowledge: Here’s Why (Open Data and Social Change)

NCVOYesterday I attended an exciting meeting at the headquarters of NCVO, London. I was joined by David Kane (NCVO), Tim Davies (360Giving / Open Data Services Cooperative), Steven Flower (ODS), Mark Freeman (Cambridge CVS), James Bowles (student), and Greg Bloom (author of a chapter in ‘Beyond Transparency: Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation‘). We talked about my idea of having a shared open data standard for publishing information on non-profit groups across the UK. I call it OpenVCS.

Beyond TransparencyOCVA is the first VCS / CVS in the UK to commit to publishing its extensive database of non-profit groups as open data. The reasons for this commitment are many. In short, it will enable others (including us and Oxfordshire Community Foundation) to create apps for real-world, and highly beneficial, purposes. Purposes like making funding searches easier for groups. Purposes like giving groups the evidence they require to build a case for bids.

At the start of the meeting there was some discussion about “directories”. OCVA could (re-) publish a clunky searchable directory database of “what’s in my area” information. We had one for many years. But we’ve realised that this is not the right priority. Databases and directories are already ‘old hat’. They come from the days before Google, and from pre-Internet notions of what a paper directory should contain.

The web has moved on a lot since then. (People call it Web 2.0 – the Internet of things.) With that comes a new way of using and interacting with information. Instead of two dimensional web forms and search result lists, think mobile apps with map points, graphs, charts, visualisations and so on. Three dimensional data.

The thing about data is that when it’s held under lock and key, it can only be “what we know” and never “what we all know”. When it’s openly shared it can be joined up with other data and suddenly comparisons can be drawn. With comparisons come fresh insights, and those insights can change lives.

We want to see a robust sustainable non-profit sector that isn’t overlooked by government, grant-makers or philanthropists. Times are getting tough for our sector now and in the years to come, so efficiencies need to be found (such as making it easier for you to find relevant funds). So this year we dropped our “directory” and focused our attention on open data instead. Once our database of thousands of Oxfordshire non-profits is made public in January 2016 anyone will be able to use it for any purpose; either in its raw form, or by including it in an app, in research, in a website, CCG’s, GP referrals – or whatever and wherever they wish. Yes, that could be a directory; but it’s much much more than that. Open data has boundless potential. Closed data becomes intelligence much less often.

We’ll be able to use our open data for our own app too of course; the Data for Good tool we’re building with Oxfordshire Community Foundation. This is the tool we hope will revolutionise how funding works in Oxfordshire and which should give you powerful insights on human needs in different areas.

This all makes more sense when you can see a working example. Greg Bloom showed us “Link SF“, a mobile friendly web tool for use by San Francisco’s homeless and their case workers. That’s the kind of life-changing technology that becomes possible when people start opening their knowledge to the world.

I’m hoping other UK VCSs like OCVA will share a standard with us and commit to open data like we have in the years to come. I’m not holding my breath, but if you don’t ask the question you never know.

Give your knowledge to the world and everyone is empowered. Keep it to yourself, and fewer people benefit.

Opinion: Trevor Barton, MA, ABIFM. Systems & Support Manager, OCVA.

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