Data is everywhere in our lives. Vast quantities of data are being created on a daily basis – an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. From our commutes, trips to the supermarket, and even while we sleep, companies are using data to develop fresh insights into our behaviours and adjust their services and product accordingly. Beyond pure marketing, big data is changing the way society operates as everything becomes more responsive to the environment and our needs and behaviours. This is a huge opportunity for voluntary organisations who successfully embrace data in the way they operate. It may even be the only way to make a step change progress in solving some of the most difficult social, economic and environmental issues.

Successfully embracing data can bring three clear benefits to mission driven organisations: a better understanding of the problem; supporting greater collaboration and partnership; and designing more effective solutions.

1. A better understanding of the problem

Big data is increasingly being used to better understand social and in particular health related problems. Google has just announced the launch of its ‘nanoparticle’ pill which, combined with a wrist-worn device, could help identify signs of diseases before they become a problem. This should hopefully help to better understand the root cause of some diseases. From a social perspective, there is an emergence of predictive models using advanced, cross-correlated probability matrices. Such models help to better understand the causality of events and as a consequence the corrective or preventive actions to be taken.

This is already applied in areas such as unemployment, education or crime. In April 2013, the Ministry of Justice launched the Justice Data Lab – a pilot to enable charities that provide offender services to access aggregate re-offending data specific to the group of people they have worked with. As a result, these charities are able to triangulate this data with their own data to arrive at more robust conclusions than if they were to only analyse their own data sets. Insights become really powerful when charities can bring in more data sets for comparison

2. Supporting greater collaboration and partnership

A few days ago, IBM announced that it has put its super-computer data analytics to use in Sierra Leone to contribute to the fight against the Ebola virus epidemic. The tech firm has launched a system that enables citizens to report Ebola-related issues and government, health agencies and other stakeholders to keep track of the disease. Citizens can use SMS or voice calls that are location-specific, which will allow the firm to analyse the data to provide up-to-date correlations and issues as they develop. Results remain to be seen in Sierra Leone, although the initiative is already reported to have brought to light specific regions with growing numbers of suspected cases which require urgent supplies like soap and electricity, as well as faster response times for body collection and burials. This is a great example of how sharing of data can support greater collaboration and effectiveness between organisations.

In the UK, numerous reports about child sexual exploitation have shown that an effective way of fighting the issue is to foster collaboration between the different agencies and better share data. This enables a better prevention through the identification of children at risk and a better resolution of issues. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner is currently piloting a project to assess how to operationalise this kind of collaborative data sharing model.

3. Designing more effective solutions

In Vancouver, 2008 saw the launch of a British Columbia law enforcement analytics project which began gathering crime data. Six years later, the project has amassed a huge quantity of data – so much so that it has been able to perform an in-depth analysis of crime patterns. The results? In Vancouver, property crime has fallen by 24% and violent crime by 9%.

Just as in other sectors, the charitable sector needs to leverage data to increase customer-centricity and personalisation. More than evidencing, data should be used to customise services around beneficiaries’ needs, patterns and behaviours. One final example of this can be seen in the case of Samaritans. For years, Samaritans have offered one of the best-known voluntary helpline services in the UK, alleviating emotional distress and reducing the incidence of suicidal feelings and behaviour, and their model has proven effective. However, research showed that 18-35 year olds spend an average of 3 hours a day on social networks, and increasingly use platforms like Twitter to express intimate feelings than in person. In response to the need to be where people are in the modern digital age, the charity has just launched their Samaritans Radar app, which uses smart technology to learn from its users to distinguish phrases that are indicative of suicidal tendencies, and will flag such behaviour and notify app users if someone they follow tweets certain trigger statements.

How to start your data journey

The starting point has to be your strategy and what you are trying to accomplish. Too many organisations are trying to start with the data they have to hand and end up collecting and analysing a lot of data that is actually not useful. You need to think about the information that is important to deliver your mission and strategy. The diagram below provides a simple framework to help you move from the data selection to the inclusion of data insight into your decision-making and your ongoing performance improvement.

Performance Management Approach