Monthly Archives: September 2013

Joined Up Philanthropy – a data standards exploration

Earlier this year, Indigo Trust convened a meeting with an ambitious agenda: to see 50% of UK Foundation grants detailed as open data, covering 80% founding grant making by value, within five years. Of course, many of the grant-giving foundations in the UK already share details of the work they fund, through annual reports or pages on their websites – but every funder shares the information differently, which makes bringing together a picture of the funding in a particular area or sector, understanding patterns of funding over time, or identifying the foundations who might be interested in a project idea you have, into a laborious manual task. Data standards for the publication of foundation’s giving could change that.

Supported by The Nominet Trust and Indigo Trust, at Practical Participation I’m working with non-profit sector expert Peter Bass on a series of ‘research sprints’ to explore what a data standard could look like. This builds on an experiment back in March to help scope an Open Contracting Data Standard. We’ll be using an iterative methodology to look at

  • (1) the existing supply of data;

  • (2) demand for data and use-cases;

  • and (3) existing related standards.

Each research sprint focusses primarily on one of these, consisting in around 10 days data collection and analysis, designed to generate useful evidence that can move the conversation forward, without pre-empting future decisions or trying to provide the final word on the question of what a data standard should look like.

Supply: What data is already collected?

The first stage, which we’re working on right now, involves finding out about the data that foundations already collect. We’re talking to a number of different foundations large and small to find out about how they manage information on the work they fund right now.

By collating a list of the different database fields that different foundations hold (whether the column headings in the spreadsheets they use to keep track of grants, or the database fields in a comprehensive relational database) and then mapping these onto a common core we’re aiming to build up a picture of which data might be readily available right now and easy to standardise, and where there are differences and diversities that will need careful handing in development of a standard. Past standards projects like the International Aid Transparency Initiative were able to benefit from a large ‘installed base’ of aid donors already using set conventions and data structures drawn from the OECD Development Assistance Committee, which strongly influenced the first version of IATI. We’ll be on the look-out for existing elements of standardisation that might exist to build upon in the foundations sector, as well as seeking to appreciate the diversity of foundations and the information they hold.

We’re aiming to have a first analysis of this exercise out in mid-October, and whilst we’re only focussing on UK foundations, will share all the methods and resources that would allow the exercise to be extended in other contexts.

Demand: what data do people want?

Of course, the data that it is easy to get hold of might not be the data that it is important to have access to, or that potential users want. That motivates the second phase of our research – looking to understand the different use cases for data from the philanthropic sector. These may range from projects seeking to work out who to send their funding applications to; philanthropists seeking to identify partners they could work with; or sector analysts looking to understand gaps in the current giving environment and catalyse greater investment in specific sectors.

Each use case will have different data needs. For example, a local project seeking funding would care particularly about geodata that can tell them who might make grants in their local area; whereas a researcher may be interested in knowing in which financial year grants were awarded, or disbursements made to projects. By articulating the data needs of each use-case, and matching these against the data that might be available, we can start to work out where supply and demand are well matched, or where a campaign for open philanthropy data might need to encourage philanthropists to collect or generate new information on their activities.

Standards: putting the pieces together

Once we know about the data that exists, the data that people want, and how they want to use it – we can start thinking in-depth about standards. There are already a range of standards in the philanthropy space, from the eGrant and hGrant standards developed by the Foundation Centre, to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard, as well as a range of efforts ongoing to develop standards for financial reporting, spending data, and geocoded project information.

Developing a draft standard involves a number of choices:

  • Fields and formats – a standard is made up both of the fields that are deemed important (e.g. value of grant; date of grant etc.) and the technical format through which the data will be represented. Data formats vary in how ‘expressive’ they are, and how extensible a standard is once determined. However, more expressive standards also tend to be more complex.

  • Start from scratch, or extend existing standards – it may be possible to simply adapt an existing standard. Deciding to do this involves both technical and governance issues: for example, if we build on IATI, how would a domestic philanthropy standard adapt to version upgrades in the IATI standard? What collaboration would need to be established? How would existing tools handle the adapted standard.

  • Publisher capacity and needs – standards should reduce rather than increase the burdens on data suppliers. If we are asking publishers to map their data to a complex additional standard, we’re less likely to get a sustainable supply of data. Understanding the technical capacity of people we’ll be asking for data is important.

  • Mapping between standards – sometimes it is possible to entirely automate the conversion between two related standards. For example, if the fields in our proposed standard are a subset of those in IATI, it might be possible to demonstrate how domestic and international funding flows data can be combined. Thinking about how standards map together involves considering the direction in which conversions can take place, and how this relates to the ways different actors might want to make use of the data.

We’ll be rolling our sleeves up as we develop a draft standard proposal, seeking to work with real data from Phase 1 to test out how it works, and checking the standardised data against the use cases identified in Phase 2.

The outcome of this phase won’t be a final standard – but instead a basis for discussion of what standardised data in the philanthropy sector should look like.

Get involved

We’ll be sharing updates regularly through this blog and inviting comments and feedback on each stage of the research.

If you are from a UK based Foundation who would like to be involved in the first phase of research, just drop me a line and we’ll see what we can do. We’re particularly on the look out for small foundations who don’t do much with data right now – so if you’re currently keeping track of your grant-making records on spreadsheets or post-it notes, do get in touch.