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Are We There Yet?

MFG Archive

British Social Entrepreneur, Matthew Pike, gives his opinions on the data movement

Over the course of the last decade the case has been made repeatedly for placing impact centre stage in the decisions we make as investors, funders, responsible businesses, social mission organisations, as well as individual citizens.

Let’s be clear, this vision championed by Markets for Good is truly an audacious one; challenging many existing interests and habits and requiring a whole new architecture and set of capabilities.

But the biggest challenge of all is to make the shift real and compelling for people at the front-line; those tasked with doing the work and collecting the data.

Let’s imagine Martha, out on a wet Saturday morning, doing the work she does with endless good humour; getting alongside young people and helping them imagine that they have a future. Hers is a tough but rewarding job and Martha is lucky to work for an employer that deserves an honorary degree for good intentions. Her employers have recently worked up a ‘theory of change’ on an impressive power point. Martha shrugs her shoulders at that.  They also have ‘logic models’, ‘metrics’ to report on and ‘outcomes’ to deliver. “That’s all well and good”… Martha thinks.

She is sitting at this moment with Angie, Angel to her friends, who is perched opposite her like a bird blown in by a storm. Angie’s mother was a crack addict and Angie herself has got to know pretty much every well-intentioned institution in the neighbourhood in her 14 years of life to date.  “Who decided what was ‘logical’, what was a ‘metric’ for Angie”, thinks Martha. With a murmured apology she picks up a form and fills it in with a sigh. “If they want data, they got data”.

With millions of people like Martha, the technocratic, often top down language of ‘impact measurement’ falls on deaf ears. Life just feels more complicated than that. What makes far more intuitive sense is a process of bottom-up experiment and action learning, the acid test of which is the capacity to offer insights that weren’t on offer before. Maybe Martha would be more convinced, for example, by a visualisation of Angie’s recent life journey that overlays needs addressed, support activities offered and outcomes achieved.

Martha’s employer is big on mission but light on hard cash, so we also need to make the business of data collection as easy as possible.  We can work with funders to cut the ‘data ask’ to the absolute essentials. How about we give organisations the tools to collect and analyse the data they need, free of charge? Why not strip down the job of data collection to its simplest essentials and put it on a mobile? Why not create a smart application that enables their rickety data systems to talk to each other? Above all, why can’t we support a ‘Facebook effect’ – giving people like Angie good reasons to add and share their own data with Martha and other support providers?

The exciting news is that if we can make data collection both easy and rewarding for front-line workers – and we surely can – then not only will this help unlock data of incalculable value, it will also save substantial sums on data collection and reporting. Savings of up to 10% are possible; sufficient to help us begin to put this data to work; discovering together what works better in addressing the formidable challenges that face us in the 21st century.

To the growing clamour of impatient voices at the back of the car asking “Are we there yet?” we have to reply that a big social data revolution is at best in its infancy. I believe that there are 5 foundations which lie at the heart of this;

  • There is much work to do to develop shared language for reporting, so we can compare performance, learn what works better for whom, and allocate assets more effectively;
  • We have to maximise the inter-operability of data across a myriad of systems;
  • We need to build a full set of capabilities across frontline organisations for working with data in a smarter way;
  • We need many more programmes that use real time intelligence to pioneer new models of bottom-up mass collaboration;
  • And above all we need to make this new approach as real, compelling and rewarding as possible for the Martha’s and Angie’s of this world.

We are only in the first stages of a journey towards putting social value at the heart of modern markets. But the tempo is picking up; animated by a sense the problems that now confront us on a planetary scale are not susceptible to business as normal.

What individual, heroic acts of social entrepreneurship have proved, again and again, is that there are always much smarter ways of solving our social problems; but individual actions, vital as they are, are not enough. We need a new era of shared intelligence and collaborative action. Intelligence shared means problems halved: in the face of funding cuts and endemic risk aversion, this is the truth that we need to hold on to as we re-double our efforts towards a true system change.


Matthew Pike is one of the UK’s most experienced social entrepreneurs who helped to create Unltd, the Social Investment Business and Big Society Capital along with more than 50 other ventures.  Matthew has created to be a free resource for organisations to report on their social impact – it launches later this year.  He is leading the Open Outcomes Reference Group which is building shared standards for impact reporting that will also inform a new ‘API’ for mapping and sharing impact data across different IT systems.