Promising response from BIG to FOI requests for data

BIG Lottery Fund is the largest of the organisations that distributes money from the state-sanctioned Lottery  in the UK. They have given a helpful response to my two FOI requests.  I made two probing requests – one for a set of grants data from a geographic unit of manageable size and one for the nature of data held. On grants made:

This list includes grants awarded by the Fund from lottery income and does not include grants awarded via third party funding.
Details included in this list are:
The organisation name
The project summary
The organisation address
The amount awarded
The date awarded
A number of our grants were awarded to groups whose contact address is also a residential address. We have withheld those residential addresses where they have not been made publicly available under section 40(2) of the FOIA.

The data is here for download.

My original request was informed by dialogue with officers at BIG.  I understand that the residential address issue above is a substantive one.  There is a non trivial category of grant recipients who may run a community organisation from their home address – it’s good that tiny community groups are awarded funding.  The FOI release had to be filleted by hand to remove personal data.  This at least for now limits the scale of such an FOI request that BIG can respond to within the cost limits of FOI to an area about as big as the N1 postal district (a chunk on North London).  And one might expect that this would limit a large scale retrospective data release by BIG itself.

There are several angles here:  What is practice in other bodies that release open data about money paid from public funds to people who register a home address?  In future can any filleting required be done by machine, perhaps by use of tags for home addresses?  I have asked questions about practice in other open data areas and will report back.

On data structure, BIG were helpful and indeed could have been more so if I had had time to talk with them to clarify my request:

‘We are committed to considering options to make more of our data readily available to the public. We are specifically looking to  publish the data underpinning the Fund’s research and evaluation work and consult with stakeholders to identify sources of data that  can be made available as open data sets. We also intend help  raise the profile of open data within the VCS sector and encourage  organisations to maximise the value of open data that is available.’

and

‘You have requested a description of our information system(s) for historic grant information and for the data fields that our system holds in relation to grantees.

‘We currently use a bespoke Oracle database system within which our data is spread spread across 400+ tables in eight schemas, with a lot of data fields held as metadata. Over the next few months we plan to introduce a new funding management system which is designed to make the experience of applying for and managing funding clearer, simpler and more efficient.

Because there is such a large amount of data within our system we emailed you on the 2 July 2013 to ask you to contact us so that we were able to understand and fulfil your request better, but as yet we have not heard back from you.’

The data shows over 250 fields potentially captured.

Overall I am pleased with these responses – it reveals a clear willingness to move towards more open philanthropy from this the biggest Lottery distributor, albeit raising some issues as one would expect.  I am grateful to the officers involved and look forward to helping BIG on a journey to becoming an open data organisation.

Open data is a necessary enabler for more open philanthropy but data is by no means in itself sufficient. Indeed a focus on open data alone can deter people who are put off by the technical language and air of wonkery that surrounds it. Argument needs to be driven by the benefits such data can yield.  More on this in subsequent posts.

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