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Big Data versus Big Issues

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It was during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic that a sub-group of the Buckinghamshire Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) Recovery Board formed. Through discussions at the Board it was increasingly apparent that there were stark issues facing people as the effects of the pandemic escalated. Alongside Buckinghamshire Council colleagues, the key funding organisations across Buckinghamshire were meeting on a weekly basis to coordinate their approaches, focusing on getting the right resources to the right people at the right time. In order to achieve this, it was necessary to be more open and flexible about our funding strategies and our available resources. Most important was understanding the complexity of need and how as funders we could address issues, both those pertinent because of Covid as well as those more deep-set and needing long-term solutions.


Sitting at the heart of our discussions was often the question about how we could make the best decisions about allocating funding, not just through the pandemic but more generally to achieve the best collective impact – we concluded that the best investments are generally informed by the best intelligence. It turned out that the funding organisations, Heart of Bucks, The Rothschild Foundation, The Clare Foundation, Leap and Buckinghamshire Council were all rich with data, most of which was publicly accessible, but never before had been meaningfully connected.


During that time, in something of a parallel universe, the success of online retailers such as Amazon were able to advance their business models because of the lockdown scenario facing consumers. Beyond the goal of pleasing customers, sitting at the heart of Amazon is the powerful use of data, data which sits at the fulcrum of supply and demand.


Also during the pandemic Devizes MP, Danny Kruger, published ‘Levelling Up Our Communities: Proposals for a New Social Covenant’ a report setting out proposals to sustain the monumental community response to COVID-19 and setting out how civil society can contribute to the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. As a former charity CEO, Kruger had experience, and more importantly empathy for the VCSE. One of his key recommendations (no.3) was “Negotiation with Big Tech firms to finance and co-design new, non-proprietary digital infrastructure for communities. Big Tech should be persuaded to provide, for free, the wiring of our social infrastructure.” Kruger went further stressing that Government is committed to unlocking the power of data as set out in the National Data Strategy. “To ensure that a diverse range of perspectives continue to inform the implementation of the strategy, we have created a new National Data Strategy Forum with the aim to unlock the power of data for all.”


A clear picture was forming: In order to address the biggest societal challenges and tackle the most stubborn and resistant inequalities, quick fixes achieve little. What is needed is a collective response to deeply engrained issues by first understanding the root cause through lived experience; insight; research; and data, and then properly co-designing responses.


As we launch the Buckinghamshire Data Exchange I sincerely hope that it is a catalyst which through the use of shared data can help the VCSE, Buckinghamshire Council and other contributors improve investment strategies, help inform policy decisions and act as a magnet to create new partnerships. It will also help blow the myth that Buckinghamshire is uniformly affluent and undeserving, helping charities and voluntary organisations attract national investment into the county. It will also help us to evidence the impact of our investments and interventions as we tackle persistent issues.


It is however only the first step and painfully basic compared to the data science leveraged by Amazon and Big Tech operators. My hope is that we can prove the concept and build from here. Just imagine what good could be achieved if comparative levels of data science harnessed by Big Tech were to focus on tackling inequalities and challenging society’s biggest issues.


Mark Ormerod

Chair Buckinghamshire VCSE Partnership Board

September 2022



The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author and do not represent the views of affiliated organisations.

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