Data is 'dangerous' warns 'furious' social change leader

The hype around data collection in the social sector and its use as a tool to increase social impact has been called into question in the UK.

At New Philanthropy Capital’s (NPC) State of the Sector 2015: Where next for the data revolution? event in London yesterday, CEO of the Directory of Social Change Debra Allcock Tyler told delegates she was sceptical about the role data can play in the voluntary and social sector.

She said: “The vast majority of people in my experience who analyse data and use it are not responsible with it.

“It makes me furious that there is so much data to show that the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) are a massively important function in our society – so what does the government do? It takes money away from it and gives it to a private sector company not proven. How is that data useful?"

After describing data as potentially "dangerous", Allcock Tyler continued: "Data tells us to exclude elderly people from using the NHS – it’s not economically viable, it doesn’t make any sense, we could spend that money very valuably somewhere else. What drives us in the voluntary sector is not what the data says is logical but what is the right and human thing to do."

There was not universal agreement with the her comments, however. NPC’s data labs project manager Tracy Gyateng explained that NPC’s research has found that data is important in three core areas for social sector organisations.

Firstly, in understanding the needs of the beneficiaries of services, as well as maximising the impact of campaigning and measuring social impact.

Supporting this point, James Plunkett, head of consumer, public services and campaigns at CAB, described how its data collection work has helped shape programmes and decisions about the services it provides. 

“We now know a lot now about how different social issues bleed into each other... for example, how people in debt tend to have more mental health problems,” he said.

Paul Maltby, director of open data and government innovation at the Cabinet Office, also highlighted how digital tools based on open data are improving public service delivery, for example in the social housing sector. 

He cited Movemaker – “the Tinder of social housing” and an app which enables people in the social housing sector to house swap – as an example of where open data is improving an already existing service. “This is something people have been able to do for a long time involving people putting adverts in the local paper, but it is all just a bit clumsy,” he said.

One of the more widely agreed points discussed was that the challenge for social sector organisations is not to collect as much data as possible, but to understand exactly what data is relevant and what is merely ‘a nice to have’ that would require using resources that could create more social impact if distributed elsewhere.

This has been an ongoing challenge for the UK's social enterprise sector more specifically, which faces increasing pressure to prove its social impact through comprehensive impact measurement processes with the limited resources they have as an organisation.

The debate around social impact measurement and the use of data and metrics came to the forefront of discussion at Social Enterprise UK's (SEUK) Social Value Summit, where SEUK's CEO Peter Holbrook said that the risk to the social impact measurement dialogue "is that we try to create a single definition and a single unit of measurement we can all measure it by".

Yesterday NPC's Gyateng concluded: “I’m a data enthusiast but also cautious – let’s make sure we do this right.”


New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) is a UK-based organisation that offers consulting services to charities and funders based on their think tank research into how the social sector can operate more effectively.

Photo credit: Carissa Rogers