Data collaboration: Knowledge is power and it’s time to share

Posted on 15 Mar 2021

By Stefanie Ball, Our Community Innovation Lab

Not-for-profit data experts Seer Data & Analytics say there are good reasons why for-purpose organisations should look beyond their own data projects and consider joining a “data collaborative”.

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The East Gippsland collaborative shared data for a better result for children and families. Source: East Gippsland Children’s Wellbeing Data Collaborative partnership day, 2021.

A data collaborative (or collective) is a group of organisations that have joined forces to share their data.

Seer says data sharing can provide “situational context”, help identify and fill knowledge and service gaps, and help you more accurately measure key indicators and trends.

Organisations joining the Seer platform can add to their own data by using open and public datasets (such as Australian Bureau of Statistics Data) to paint a broader picture about community needs and how to best address them; or you can upload your own private data and share with other like-minded groups.

Here are five benefits of data collaboration for your not-for-profit

  1. Make a bigger impact in your community
  2. Contribute to a wider impact across the sector
  3. Access better quality data
  4. Fill data and knowledge gaps at the community level
  5. Submit better reports to funders and stakeholders, to better tell your story

Case study: East Gippsland group shares knowledge for a ‘community voice’

The East Gippsland Children’s Wellbeing Data Collaborative – formed in 2020 – comprises several organisations providing complementary services in the East Gippsland region of Victoria.

The alliance comprises Save the Children, Gippsland Lakes Complete Health, Uniting, Gippsland East Local Learning & Employment Network, East Gippsland Primary Care Partnership and East Gippsland Shire Council.

Rachel Bell, Save the Children
Project facilitator Rachel Bell says that data collaboration has enabled service providers to respond more effectively.

Operating in an area spanning more than 20,000 square kms, the community-led approach aims to make lives better for children and their families.

All the groups had a need to better understand client needs, and combining resources meant improving that knowledge.

Save the Children had already been using public and local data as part of its Children's Wellbeing Initiative to understand the organisation’s impact in the community before working to bring other groups into the venture.

Save the Children’s 2018 report on the project identified five key indicators to track: measuring children’s social and emotional wellbeing, and addressing family violence, substance use and service access.

It also identified crucial gaps in the data, such as the number of residents living in public housing or kindergarten attendance rates for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children.

Save the Children project facilitator Rachel Bell said the report had highlighted the groups it needed to work with to better understand those key indicators, and the knowledge gaps.

“There were some hunches and bits of data before the Wellbeing of Children and Young People report, but the data in the report clearly highlighted these concerns,” Ms Bell said.

The cooperative project is already bearing fruit.

Ms Bell said there had been “a positive shift in engagement between local government, service providers and the community on family violence prevention”. She said this had led to better support for women and children facing violence.

“We know that service providers have been able to respond more effectively to children and families who need support,” she said.

An effective use of data had been central to that effort, Ms Bell said, but she acknowledged that more still needed to be done.

“It would be valuable to understand what we need to do more of (and less of) to create shifts in complex challenges like family violence,” she said.

Another benefit of the data collaboration had been the ability to better understand needs across a huge part of Victoria, particularly during the devastating Black Summer bushfires in 2019-2020 which ravaged parts of the state.

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East Gippsland town Mallacoota was heavily impacted by the Black Summer bushfires. Source: Flickr, Ninian Reid.

The bushfires had exacerbated many of the existing problems affecting children and families, Ms Bell said.

“The bushfires highlighted how disjointed the system is and how there needs to be more local mechanisms for input and decision-making,” she said.

Kristi Mansfield, CEO of Seer Data & Analytics, the data platform that provided the collaborative with the tools and support for sharing data, said that accessing and analysing shared data could create significant benefits for the social and government sectors.

Seer CEO Kristi Mansfield
Seer CEO Kristi Mansfield wants to make data collaboration accessible for NFPs. Source: LinkedIn.

She said Seer was a “civic tech start-up bridging the data divide between the business, government and social sectors”, with a goal to improve access to data by providing affordable data collaboration tools to help organisations define need, design programs, and track the progress of their programs.

Ms Mansfield said collaboration led to a “deeper understanding of local context” and that policymakers had begun to better listen to the “community voice” as a result of increased access to data.

She said governments had become more willing to enable access and sharing of data in the wake of the pandemic.

Five ways to make data collaboration work for you

1. Make a bigger impact in your community

Data sharing can help your organisation make a bigger impact by giving you access to data that is held within the community, filling the gaps left by open data. That’s because more data means better insights about the problems you’re collectively trying to solve in your community. Pooling resources will help your organisation more easily identify community needs, track the impact of programs and activities, and identify trends in the community. Data collaboration can help you identify what works (and what doesn’t) and save you reinventing the wheel.

2. Contribute to a wider impact across the sector

How many organisations similar to yours exist across Australia? A keyword search of ‘youth’ on the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission website returns over 800 results. That’s a lot of like-minded organisations providing complementary services that could potentially pool data and turn that data into insight and knowledge. Not-for-profits can also collaborate with government agencies and access public datasets to paint a broader picture. Open data is available for anyone to access and the benefit is that you’re often dealing with larger datasets than the average community group would be used to.

3. Have access to better quality data

One of the common pitfalls of social sector data is that it can be messy, held across various locations, or there simply isn’t enough of it. And that’s assuming you’re collecting it properly in the first place. As a result, community-level data can be challenging to analyse. Many community groups don’t have the resources or know-how to do the analysis themselves due to resource constraints or data illiteracy. Joining forces with other groups can save you time answering commonly asked questions and help you identify and accomplish shared goals.

4. Fill data (and knowledge) gaps

Benchmark your organisation against other groups similar to yours, working in the same geographical area or with similar demographics. Comparison can give your data situational context and fill gaps to help understand the issue you are trying to solve in your community. The East Gippsland Children’s Wellbeing Initiative sourced data from a variety of places –from surveys on substance misuse, to data on youth oral health and dietary habits. You can also compare programs, track community outcomes or gain insights about what works (and what doesn’t).

5. Submit better reports to funders and stakeholders (tell your story)

Reports can be used to track outcomes and indicators, but they can also be used to tell your community’s story. Blending local data with open data can help enrich that story. And adding qualitative data like videos, case studies and testimonials from a variety of sources will generate better reports for funders and stakeholders, and to build an evidence base for policy change or new funding.

How can I get started with data collaboration?

While there are some international services providing not-for-profit data collaboration, Ms Mansield says Seer is the first in our region to provide a dedicated platform and support.

Organisations can register to use Seer for free, with a “standard plan” drawing on publicly available datasets from organisations including the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Department of Social Services, Social Research Centre and Australian Bureau of Statistics.

For more serious players, Seer has introduced a Community Data Collaborative plan tailored to not-for-profits, which it says is the first product of its type in Australia. Seer has offered the plan first to Our Community members. They say groups can bring their own data to the platform and share it with others, while sharing the cost of a plan.

The subscription service costs $16,000 a year (the cost can shared by group participants), allowing for 20 users across up to four organisations with a support advisor, storytelling dashboards, access to more datasets and advice from Seer data scientists.

Learn more in this free webinar

Watch the live recording of Seer Data & Analytics webinar conversation with the East Gippsland Children’s Wellbeing Data Collaborative to learn more about how member groups used the platform to improve their services.

Webinar recording: Data collaboration: Knowledge is power and it’s time to share – join Save the Children’s Rachel Bell and Rachael Dooley, and Seer’s Kristi Mansfield as they discuss how data is helping create impact in East Gippsland on Tuesday 30 March 1:30pm – 2:30pm AEDT.