Update on activity

In our view at Indigo, to achieve our objectives we cannot lead the argument with open data itself. Open data is a critical enabler to achieve benefits. It is the benefits that appeal to senior grant makers only rarely the data itself.  An update on activity since the kick off meeting.

Nominet Trust, BIG and Indigo are working with Tim Davies and Peter Bass via Practical Participation on a series of short sprints to examine the fit of existing open data standards, the potential for data analysis, the nature of data that could be published and demand and benefits of data analysis.

We have been in discussion with NESTA the innovation charity funded by a lottery endowment about opening up their own grant data.  NESTA published a good article on charity funders sharing their information to make better interventions in the Guardian professional network.

BIG the largest lottery distributor has made two data releases.  BIG said that:

‘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’

This is very promising. These releases have helped isolate the data protection issue of publishing peoples home names and addresses they may have used for a grant application. This will not be unique to BIG and further work is needed on how to address it.

The general concept of open data for grant recipients (not grant makers, who are the focus of this stage of our work) was raised and discussed positively at a Cabinet Office round table with large charities in July.

Indigo is working with Aequitas Consulting on messaging and branding this approach to transparency and open philanthropy.

Indigo has published a blog post on the kick off meeting

We hope that by the early Autumn we should have a well worked up set of resources both on the over-arching benefits and the technical enablers to take deliver a successful campaign to win around UK grants makers.

Posted in News & Updates

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.’


‘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.

Posted in News & Updates

First catch your data

It isn’t always easy for large organisations to just open the floodgates and pour data out.   There’s always a host of compliance issues, some real, some over-cautious.  Tim Berners-Lee’s original, highly readable 2009 article on bureaucracies and open data acknowledges this and urges them just to publish, not spend years agonising:

Just do it…There are two philosophies to putting data on the web. The top-down one is to make a corporate or national plan, by getting committees together of all the interested parties, and make a consistent set of terms (ontology) into which everything fits. This in fact takes so long it is often never finished, and anyway does not in fact get corporate or national consensus in the end. The other method experience recommends is to do it bottom up. A top-level mandate is extremely valuable, but grass-roots action is essential. Put the data up where it is: join it together later. …So, take some data.

One of our goals for open philanthropy is:

‘within 5 reporting years 80% of grants made by UK charities, foundations & other grant makers are reported as open data to agreed standards’

To achieve this goal it’s important to understand what information that the Lottery/BIG will publish as open data.  BIG already publishes some historic grant information but in a cautious, toe-in-the-water way (thanks to Owen Boswarva for pointing this out).  This is important because it shows that BIG has no intrinsic objections to publishing grant data, but their approach just needs to come up to speed with modern open data practice in the spirit of the recent G8 TT and UN Open Government Partnership work.  So I have submitted some experimental FOI requests to give BIG the opportunity to publish open data for reuse and to have a dialogue about how to do so.  I have given BIG an excuse to publish data for the London N1 postcode area and also to reveal what data they hold about grantees and how it is structured. I know that BIG staff are aware I have submitted this request and will await the outcome with interest.

Posted in News & Updates

Meeting hosted by Indigo Trust on 20 June 2013

Indigo Trust hosted a meeting at its offices to discus open data, philanthropy, grant making and the principles underpinning this blog.  The minutes will be published in due course, the following attended:

Simon Marshall Big Lottery Funding

Cathy Pharoah Cass Business School

Owen Barder Centre for Global Development

Beth Breeze Centre for Philanthropy – Kent University

Adam Pickering Charities Aid Foundation

Joni Hillman Development Initiatives

Mary Glanville Institute for Philanthropy

Tom Steinberg mySociety

David Kane NCVO

Charlotte Ravenscroft NCVO – National Council for Voluntary

Dan Corry New Philanthropy Capital

Ed Anderton Nominet Trust

Martin Tisne Omidyar Network

Chris Taggart Open Corporates

Nigel Shadbolt Open Data Institute

Richard Stirling Open Data Institute

Rufus Pollock Open Knowledge Foundation

Tim Davies Practical Participation

Mark Brough Publish What You Fund

David Hall-Matthews Publish What You Fund

Dorothea Hodge Aequitas Consulting


Fran Perrin Founder and Director Indigo Trust

William Perrin Trustee, Indigo Trust

Loren Treisman Executive, Indigo Trust

Richard Crellin Researcher, Indigo Trust/SFCT

Posted in News & Updates

Opening up data around grant making – a demonstrator for Esmee Fairbairn

In 2010, Esmee Fairbairn a leading grant maker in the social justice area held a futures event.  One team took Esmee’s grant information from their website (where it was published in pdf documents) and turned it into a database.  By turning the data into a versatile database, instead of static documents they were able to present the information in a range of different ways (including the map).  The blog describes their journey.

The team was able to produce a simple map of grants and a motion chart of how the type and size of grant changed over time.

But most of their limited time was spent wrestling the data into a database.  The team from practical participation wrote a blog post on what else they could do.

For example, loaded into statistical software (and cleaned up more) it could be used to explore how much of a charities income grants from the Foundation made up in a given year. Or, if we could merge non-charity grants with details of those organisations, it could be used to explore the difference between grants to charities and other organisations.

We could explore how photos, media and reports from Flickr and other websites could be attached to unique grant identifiers and displayed on the Foundation’s website to give a visual impression of the impact of the grantmaking.

One way to explore the impact of grantmaking is to see what grant recipients are saying about the Foundation on their websites. Because Open Charities provides websites URLs for many charities, we can take the list of website addresses from our merged Fusion Table and use this to create a Google Custom Search Engine (CSE) that searches just the websites of grant recipients.

The critical step was to turn the grant making information in pdf files – essentially something closed to a computer – into open data that a computer could read.  At simple level just publishing the grant information as a CSV file or basic spreadsheet would make life much easier.  We are aiming for a world where the vast majority of grant data are published as open data that computers can read. This then unlocks huge potential for understanding and analysis of who is making grants to whom across a wide range of bodies.  Grant makers would be able to see at a glance who was funding in a similar area and then choose to collaborate or learn from the other funders’ experience. This will take us one step nearer to a more strategic approach to philanthropy for donors and recipients.

Posted in News & Updates