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Charity data – all things tangible

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Data is everywhere - there are whole festivals dedicated to it, there’s a global data for good movement and it’s at the heart of lots of digital service improvements. But it’s in the last year and a half that data has been part of our everyday lives and we’ve really seen how important it is to use data to anchor stories in fact. We are in a unique and privileged position as Scotland’s charity regulator to have a rich source of data from Scotland’s charities at our fingertips.

Our Scottish Charities 2021 Sector Overview report is based on data from the Scottish Charity Register. It tells us how many charities there are (just over 25,000 on the Scottish Charity Register); what size they are (50 percent have an income of less than £25,000), who they support (the largest specific beneficiary group is children and young people (47%)); how many people they employ (over two hundred thousand), but two thirds are run entirely by volunteers; and where they are (the majority of Scotland’s charities operate in a single local authority area, with island communities and rural areas reporting a higher level of charities per 10,000 people than other areas).

This is the data at the heart of our day-to-day work. It helps us make decisions, makes our work more efficient and contributes to better outcomes.

But like the rest of the world, it’s in the last year and a half we’ve valued and appreciated this data like never before. When we surveyed the charity sector on the impact of COVID-19 we gave thousands of a charities a voice, many of them small and less frequently heard. But it also gave us tangible, robust data which we shared with Scottish Government, funders and stakeholders. It demonstrated our reach as regulator and the importance of our connection to Scotland’s charities and our role supporting a well-regulated sector of well-run charities that are trusted by the public. We want to build on this connection and to help others understand the sector, its breadth and depth.

Regulators do not typically spring to mind if you are thinking of organisations that could support innovation in the use of data to tackle priority challenges of society and the economy. But the Open Data Institute recently highlighted data as a new form of infrastructure that regulators can influence. It was exciting to hear Jeni Tennison from the Open Data Institute in the keynote for the recent Data4Good Festival identifying regulators as old institutions with new data potential. Combined with our experience from last year, we want to use the Scottish Charities 2021 Sector Overview Report to raise awareness of the profile of the charity sector and the rich source of data held on the Scottish Charity Register.

That’s not to say the Scottish Charity Register isn’t already well-used – it is by far the most popular feature of our website, with over half a million searches in 2020-21. Our Scottish charity data is hugely valuable and we have a responsibility as stewards of that data to make good use of it, but to also make others aware of it. That includes making sure it is available, accessible and robust, but also making it open and meaningful. As well as the publicly available register search, we provide three downloads. We hope to build on these in future with the addition of further open data resources. We have a Scottish Charity Constituency Map, and are releasing a Sector Overview - Beta Charity Chart Tool as a soft launch, to help users explore the live register data in different ways. It is a small step, and we’re planning further improvements, but it can be used to create tailored visuals using a number of filters, with the ability to export the chart images and summary data.

The SCVO Sector Stats (which also feed into the NCVO Voluntary Sector Almanac), Social Enterprise in Scotland Census and academic analysis (covering topics such as income dependence and regulatory concerns), make excellent use of the data charities provide when they register and submit annual returns. And there is more besides, with new projects and innovative charity data apps (enough to fuel an entire blog on its own)!

We recently received some feedback in response to a piece of work combining policy, survey findings and register data that mentioned the phrase “all things tangible”. That’s the space we’re in but we hope in future we can use the Scottish Charity Register to start conversations about the future potential of charity data.