Blog: Keep calm and use your data

By Tim Crabbe, founder and Chief Executive, Substance

One of the great anxieties of our age seems to be the increasing pace of life and the growing dependence on the forces of technology that are beyond our control. Where once technological innovation might come in physical form – a wheel, a steam engine, a telephone with a wire attached to it – that you could observe, touch and make sense of, many of today’s tech breakthrough’s, particularly in the workplace, are more abstract and tied into eco-systems that appear somewhat de-humanised. Terms such as ‘the cloud’, ‘wireless’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ all play to this mystique and other worldliness that have the potential to fuel our fears. If you’re anything like me you’ll veer from excitement about the possibilities of the online connected age to the fear and frustration that you don’t fully understand or have the resources to unlock that potential.

One of those new technological developments that is increasingly affecting our lives, private and public; personal and professional is the concept of ‘Big Data’, a term for large and complex data sets that traditional software is inadequate to deal with. Once again its very name is suggestive of a dystopic other worldliness that dwarfs and renders us invisible in the midst of the bigger picture. And yet at the same time it is alluring, offering up the promise to see into the future and, in our work lives, help us ensure we make more of a difference and achieve greater impact.

It was in this context that I was struck by a recent Forbes article that set out to debunk some of the myths around ‘Big Data’ and even data management more broadly which might help to settle our own nerves and reset the dial on how to make the best use of data in the charitable sector.

  • Myth one is that everybody is ‘doing’ Big Data! Of course they are not, but the fear that everyone is, encourages people to dive into projects they have not planned and are not ready for.
  • Myth two is that it’s all about the volume of data and that you can only benefit if you have ouzels of the stuff. The real benefits however, whether you are dealing with big data sets or not, come with the quality and significance of the data you have to work with.
  • Myth three is that like some Dr Who piloted Tardis it will take us to the future. I’m hopeful that innovation lies beyond my time on this Earth and can happily report that Big Data, and data more generally, can only tell us with certainty about what has already happened… which it must be said is pretty useful for predicting what could happen next.
  • Myth four is that it’s too expensive. As the old adage goes, nothing comes for free, but growing interest is driving down the cost of tools and services that could help you crunch your data.
  • Myth five is that data, and especially Big Data, is only for techies. If that was true we may as well let the techies book our flights and choose our car insurance too. The truth is that we can all benefit from access to the right data and tools to help us manage it.

The main lessons from these observations are that there is no reason to panic. There is every reason to be interested in having more data and making better use of it.  The first step is to develop a clear data strategy to improve the entirety of the ways you acquire, store, manage, share and, ultimately, use data.

At Inspiring Impact we recognise that one of the main challenges is to select the right technology to help with this challenge. Over the last few years we’ve built up a repository of listings for hundreds of resources in the Impact Hub. Of course, the abundance of choice brings its own anxieties and so we are now working on the generation of more structured guidance on the selection of databases and data management tools that lie at the core of any effective data strategy, so please do watch this space.

 

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