Opening up

Whenever you are attempting to develop a new service, it’s crucial to get input from your potential users. You may believe you’ve come up with a cracking idea, but the only way you’ll find out if you’re right is by testing it, with people who are coming with a fresh pair of eyes. There is no shortage of splendid-sounding concepts which, in the end, have turned out not to be the killer app for this, or the trip advisor for that: in fact it’s an inevitable part of trying out new stuff that most of it won’t actually work.

What you can easily avoid is spending much time and money on building a new thing before it’s had any meaningful prods and pokes from some of the people you think might want to use it. As I described in my previous post, we’ve established with a range of grant-makers, social investors and infrastructure bodies, that they believe their grantees, investees, members and clients would find a more interconnected, data-driven approach to organisational development useful. What we now need to understand is whether that hypothesis is backed up by our target audience.

Hence we’ve put together a short survey, to get some feedback from as many people working in charities and social enterprises as possible. Conscious of the many surveys out there and everyone’s limited capacity, we’ve tried to make this as short and punchy as possible - it should take about 5-10 minutes to complete. If you work at a UK-based charity or social enterprise, we’d love to hear from you: if you work for a grant funder, social investor or infrastructure body, we’d be grateful if you could share the link across your network.

We’ve put the survey together to gather some feedback about existing diagnostic tools, and to test two key aspects of the service we’re looking to develop. The first is that it will draw together information which already exists - both public and non-public - and aggregate it into a helpful resource a charity or social enterprise can easily access. Secondly, it will provide the means for organisations to track change over time, and compare themselves to others with similar characteristics (such as turnover, number of staff, income sources and the types of services you deliver).

It’s worth noting too that we’re very aware of the reservations many may feel about how such information will be held, owned and controlled. This is the reason we’re also looking at the role a data trust could play in providing the reassurance and security needed for everyone involved.

There are many more details to be worked up and tested, but this is our starting point. Alongside this survey, we are also building a basic prototype of the service, with a small group of user-tester organisations. This will involve manually stitching together various sources of information in different formats, putting together a summary report for each organisation, and getting their detailed feedback about what’s helpful, what’s not, and how it could be improved.

We’ll also be thinking carefully through each aspect of the process to understand how it might be improved. Within this, one question will be central: what do we currently have to do to gather, verify and combine information, and how could this effort be reduced? Useful information may be in formats like a pdf, from which it is difficult to extract; it may also be unclear whether it is accurate, or accurate but out of date; there may also be information which appears to be about the same thing (e.g. what types of people a charity serves) but may not be similar enough to be usefully combined or compared (e.g. differences in defining at what age a child becomes a young person, or a young person becomes an adult).

These issues are well-known amongst the data-curious in the social sector, and they will not be easily resolved. The prize of even modest progress, however, could be considerable: a more information-rich sector, empowered to channel resources (money, time, attention) more efficiently and directly to where they are likely to make the most difference. A prerequisite of any such progress is shared intention and collective action: we’ve already been working to build this from the funding, finance and support side. What we need now is the challenge and engagement of the charities and social enterprises which we’re aiming to help with this service: so please, do let us know your thoughts.