Open Data Ireland: Charity Transparency

In May 2014 Open Knowledge Ireland asked:  “Can data help Irish charities to win back the trust lost in recent scandals?”

Driven by this question and inspired by the successful implementation of  http://www.charitynavigator.org/ in the US, Open Knowledge Ireland (OK Ireland) undertook a challenge to help Irish citizens and donors compare charities using a similar driven-by-data platform.

Initial research revealed that there was little or no relevant, publicly accessible data available in Ireland in reusable machine-readable format. OK Ireland and partners therefore needed to develop a methodology and a reporting standard to compile and construct an open dataset based on the audited annual reports of Irish charities.  We derived this standard from the UK’s Statement of Recommended Practice, Accounting and Reporting by Charities (SORP).

On a sunny Saturday morning on July 26th in 2014, qualified and engaged volunteers from civil society and the charities sector gathered to cap the exploratory phase of our project by crowdsourcing essential data and building a prototype of the data-driven platform.

In the course of our research and implementation, we looked at the INKEx model and its legacy with great interest.

Between 2007 – 2012, this organisation sought to key in a dataset to a proprietary database and make extracts of this data publicly available through a “free website” with the purpose of creating “a public good for the benefit of civil society, not to generate profit” (See Sara Burke’s postmortem report on INKEx, commissioned by INKEx here, p.5). Without noting any irony this endevour has been presented to the public as an “open data project”.

According to public records €1.1 million of public money was invested in INKEx between 2009 and 2011, public funding was withdrawn in 2012 and INKEx ceased trading in 2013. However, the fruits of its endeavours and the data it collected are still not publicly available – rendering it difficult to judge whether it delivered on any of its objectives. (See case study, ibid, here.)

What was the return on this investment to the Irish taxpayer?

According to recent reports, INKEx has been contracted by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (D/PER) for a second phase (See update bellow).

OK Ireland and the strategic partners involved in Open Charity Data project and in generating SORP v.2 are of the opinion that reviving INKEx is not a wise strategic decision for the following reasons:

  • The case study mentioned above, (ibid, p14) reported that there was “little understanding” as to how INKEx’s model could have cost €1-1.3 million per year (publicly and privately raised) on an ongoing basis. (ibid, p14). This cost is scarcely justifiable in 2014.
  • Smart and prudent public funding remains an issue. What was questioned as being of limited value then remains bad value now.  Building a closed service  rather than harnessing public value, as was done in 2010 and 2012 is not progressive thinking. Public opposition to this practice is clearly evident in the example of Irish Water – high wage bills for publicly-funded organisations. The charity sector can do without another stick to beat it.
  • INKEx’s business plan was to own the data, commercially tendering to provide it to the newly-legislated Charity Registry on one hand, while on the other hand receiving public grants and philanthropy for the data’s collection and curation.  Why should this company receive funds to build a privately-held asset which is then sold back to the state?  (See Sara Burke report pp14).

In Open Knowledge’s view, charity data should not be owned and controlled by one company,  but by the Irish people and should be readily available to the public and the government at no charge, once collated.

Open Knowledge’s approach to helping charities share their financial data contrasts with the stated intentions and methodologies of INKEx. We would provide a platform for charities to share their data openly and publicly in a self-sustainable fashion. The outcome would be owned by the people of Ireland under an open licence (CC), making the relevant information available for anyone to use, reuse and share, in the spirit of Open Data, a vital 21st century movement in which the Government, particularly, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, has already invested ideologically and publicly.

More importantly, OK Ireland’s proposal is to gain broad engagement and participation by civil society in serving itself and its needs rather than vesting this responsibility in a private company. Our approach embraces a forward thinking practice that recognises the gain both financially and politically by harnessing participation, sharing the burden and collectively sharing the benefits. This shifts from a clientist model to a collectivist approach, which has proven to lead to socially-driven solutions to society’s needs through civil engagement across all stages of design, implementation and delivery.

Our project has been frequently shared with D/PER’s Reform Unit . It was also presented to the newly appointed charity regulator (slide deck + 2-page case study .pdf). It has been clearly indicated that the project can be delivered at the fraction of cost of deploying a dedicated staff, by providing a value proposition for participants in serving their own needs (2-page appeal to charities .pdf). Instead of setting up a Quango, government could mandate a reporting format for charities, and make returns in this format a proviso for state grants. (HSE does exactly this for some NGO sectors). Once the data is in a standard format, there is no need for keying in this information manually.

D/PER’s Reform Unit, which has a task to make open data a reality in Ireland, was supportive with organising a workshop and we are very grateful for their support. Open Data holds great promise. A promise embraced by one sector within D/PER, but this seems contrary to another unit supporting INKEx’s outdated approaches within D/PER and holding fast to an antiquated approach to serving society without civil engagement.

There seems to be a contradiction in practice between the state declaring an understanding of the benefits of open data, while investing in old-school closed projects to compile proprietary datasets for commercial outcome.

Data is useful when it makes a difference by enhancing transparency and enabling evidence-based decisions. The loss of trust in Irish charities is estimated to have reduced donations by 5% in a €2 billion market. This equates to €100m every year being diverted from former charity recipients. Our Open Charity Data project has the built-in capacity to empower citizens and donors and win back their trust, thus potentially saving lives and boosting the quality of life for people in need.

Irish-Nonprofits-Knowledge-Exchange-audited-financial-statements-for-the-period-ended-30.06.2012.pdf

INKEx-Case-Study-Sara-Burke-February-2013 (PDF)

UPDATE 17/07/2015

 In 2015 the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform co-funded re-launch of INKEX as Benefacts.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 15.14.25

Open Knowledge Ireland clarified what makes Benefacts different from its predecessor INKEx.