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Nonprofits Should Share Their Data, Too

BY David Eaves | Thursday, January 24 2013

Whenever I'm at a hackathon — or any discussion about open data, really — I'm always disappointed to see that there are few people there from the non-profit sector. Obviously this is a sector with limited resources and capacity, but not without a history of effective open data use. For example, some nonprofits — particularly those that provide housing for the elderly, or engage in advocacy around homelessness — are big consumers of census data as it helps them either plan or spot longer term trends that impact their core issues. Such analysis can help ensure scarce resources are allocated more effectively, enhancing the organization's impact.

Environmental advocacy groups also come to mind. At one point, "anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada" was one of the top 10 most-downloaded data sets from the Canadian government's open data portal over a 30 day period. In part, this is because it is useful to environmental groups, who can use it to help assess the range of woodland caribou, a species at risk. Indeed, saving this species is at the core of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA), an unlikely partnership between environmental groups and the logging industry designed to improve logging practices to minimize the negative impact on species like the woodland caribou. Indeed, the CBFA is an example of how open data can play a small role in helping drive policy recommendations.

And yet, despite these examples of data literacy in the non-profit sector, organizations rarely seem to know that there is open government data they could use. And they are even more conservative than governments about publishing their own data so that other organizations can leverage it or insights gained that might advance their mission.

There are a few exceptions. The Water and Environmental Hub appears to be trying to serve as a platform where nonprofits and universities can share environmental and water data with one another, but I've yet to see similar efforts in other sectors, particularly ones more related to social policy. Less ambitious, but perhaps more necessary, are sites like Markets for Good. That one appears to be an effort to engage the non-profit sector in this discussion. And, while not a nonprofit per se, the UNs Global Pulse initiative is potentially an example of data being used to gain insights in the realm of social policy that may ultimately provide lessons and insights to the non-profit sector.

But I'm left thinking that there is a tremendous opportunity in the non-profit space around not just using data, but also sharing data, to better understand some of the world's toughest challenges. I'm also left acknowledging that even where data usage is strong — such as in the environmental community — few stakeholders in these sectors see open data as something relevant or meaningful to their organizations and their strategies.

I'm not sure how to change that, but it seems like a huge opportunity.

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