Charity data diving at the ONS

Toni Sekinah, Research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has an ethos of delivering better statistics to inform better decisions. There is also a desire to empower non-governmental organisations the same wayl. To this end, in September volunteers at the non-ministerial statistics department’s office in Titchfield, Hampshire ran a data hack on behalf of Parkinson’s UK and Shelter.

"We place evidence and data at the heart of decision-making."

Pam Everett, deputy director of data-as-a-service at the ONS, said: “We are really about placing evidence and data at the heart of decision-making wherever we are, whether that is in our government departments, with individuals or with charities.”

The event was held in partnership with social good organisation DataKind and the University of Southampton. It followed on from the success of a data dive that took place last year at the ONS office in Newport, Wales.

Between 70 and 80 people took part, including data scientists, statisticians, analysts, developers and PhD candidates from the ONS, other government departments and the University of Southampton to answer the questions put forward by homelessness charity Shelter and Parkinson’s UK which supports people suffering with the neurodegenerative disorder.

Office for National Statistics, TitchfieldAt the start of the two-day event, the charities outlined their purpose and the particular questions they wanted to answer, which centred around how housing services and patient support services vary for people across the country.  

To answer that question for Shelter, the volunteers used the charity’s own data as well as indices of deprivation. For Parkinson’s UK, the volunteers used ONS population projections and Parkinson’s UK’s understanding of prevalence rates of the disorder to understand how the growth in those rates might affect social care provision in the future.

Everett said: “The charities often hold a lot of data but they don’t often have the time or the depth of expertise and skill to make the most of that data. We were able to draw out insight and meaning that really helped answer their questions.”

As well as supporting and informing the charities, Everett said that there are tangible benefits for the ONS volunteers as well. She said: “Some people will spend large parts of their career in government, so giving them the opportunity to work with the charity sectors gives them an insight into how data might be used in a different environment and they bring that knowledge and expertise back to the ONS or the other government department and that broadens their horizons.”

She added that many of the volunteers were “relatively career-young” with a few years of experience after coming out of university and this event was a good opportunity for them to use their skills in a different setting.

"People brought their geeky skills to play in a real-world environment."

Everett said that there was an atmosphere of skills-based philanthropy during the event. “It was very high energy and people were generally excited about the prospect of bringing their geeky skills to play in a real-world environment and actually see how they can potentially make a difference to the lives of people in the UK."

“We work on official statistics and they feed through to the lives of individuals, but sometimes that is a less obvious connection. So people were quite proud that they could really do something that would make a difference to the lives of individuals.”