Sprinkled stats and the search for data…

[Summary: Data-driven vs. data guided change-making. Reposted from the new Making a Difference With Data website]

I woke up to a tweet this morning from @YoungAdvisors pointing me to their new ‘Big Book of Stats’ and ‘What’s the Real Cost of Cutting’ resources – bringing together statistics from across the youth sector in a quick-to-skim PDF.

I got in touch with Gary Buxton, Young Advisors Chief Exec to ask a few questions about the stats:

Q: What inspired your to collect the figures you have gathered?
When times are tough its even more important to share and collaborate.  Our social goals are about creating good opportunities for young people. Having charities, social enterprises and young people all replicating work is distracting and reduces everyone’s ability to deliver. If we all shared a little bit more, we’d all be greater than the sum of our parts.

Q: How easy was it to find the data and numbers you needed?
Both pieces were pretty difficult to pull together.  It became a bit of an evening hobby! Stats came from old NYA policy briefings, NCVYS, Twitter, Facebook, Private Consultancy Companies, New Economics Foundation, Prince’s Trust and government sites etc etc.  I still really want how much it costs when a young person is excluded from school!

Q: How are you now planning to use these figures?
We use the stats for writing bids and helping the young people we work with write bids and presentations that are well informed and referenced.  Knowing your data helps young people make reasoned and compelling solutions to community problems.  We wanted to open the data to others who might find it helpful so everyone can work smart and not hard, keep delivering great work, but most of all, make a good case to decision makers, councillors and MPs about how important investing in young people is and the risk of pulling funding from services that young people regard as important.

As the ‘Sprinkled Statistics’ recipe over in the Open Data Cook Book suggests, sometimes using open data is as simple as backing up an argument with the numbers – with no need for fancy visualisation or mash-ups. Resources like Young Advisors Big Book of Stats can make that easier for other groups.

But, as Gary notes, even just collecting the statistics you need from government reports, let alone getting access to raw data to slice and explore it in different ways, can be tricky. And as Paul Clarke questions in a blog post today, is getting the data always the most important part of campaigning for a change? Whilst we might imagine there are clear ‘facts’ about the cost of school exclusions, or patient to nurse ratios, these statistics do not come solely from direct measurement, but are based on calculations from different datasets, and, importantly, rest upon definitions (what is an exclusion; what counts as a direct or indirect cost of exclusion; do you count all the time a nurse is on the ward, or only the time they are available for patient care (not paperwork). As Paul puts it:

…does the cause need the data? Does the search for data delay the obvious? Could the open data revolution sometimes obfuscate more than enlighten? While we’re arguing over reporting standards, boundary definitions and data feeds, real people are hurting and starving.

So where does this leave us? Having access to statistics, data and figures at a local level can certainly help strengthen those advocating for change. And knowing the numbers can inform bids, proposals and smarter working. But perhaps key here is to see campaigning for change as ‘data guided’ and ‘data backed’ rather than ‘data-driven’.

Making a difference with data means knowing how to use it as a tool, but one amongst many in the change-makers toolbox.

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