The best open data sets available to charities now

Ahead of Microsoft’s AI envisoning workshops for charities, we take a look at how charities can make use of open data to advance their machine learning and AI projects.

Sponsored Content | 11th Jul 18
Image shows concept of open data - 'data that is made available by organisations, businesses and individuals for anyone to access, use and share.


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For charities, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning have the capability to extract deeper meaning from data, helping to fuel their understanding of their supporters and beneficiaries and, as we’ve shown in our previous article, innovate in all kinds of new directions. But machine learning development requires big sets of data to learn from – this is why AI projects and open data often go hand in hand.

The Open Data Institute defines open data as ‘data that is made available by organisations, businesses and individuals for anyone to access, use and share’ – we’ve listed some of the top sources of open data for UK charities below. These datasets can be blended together with a charity’s own data as fuel for AI innovation.


Charity innovation starts at home

Emma Prest is Excecutive Director of DataKind UK – a UK charity that helps charities, non-profits and other social groups improve their impact through data science. They bring together over 2,000 data expert volunteers to help solve charities’ analytics and machine learning challenges, and offer free monthly Office Hours sessions answering charities’ questions.

For a smaller charity interested in getting started experimenting with open data for AI projects, Prest advises that in the beginning stages, open data and even terms like ‘AI’ can sometimes be a distraction. Fundamentally, charities need to start with the question they need to answer. Then, they must gain an understanding of the data they hold.

“If your question is ‘where is there most demand for our services’ for instance,” says Prest, “you would begin by understanding who your users are where your services currently operate, then you can overlay some open data to estimate where are some populations that are similar to your service users. That would be a great start.”


Making the most of data

Many charities are put off by the patchiness of their own data, but it doesn’t have to be a barrier.

“A lot of charities think their data is too dodgy to use. But our advice is you’ve probably got something to work with, and you can do some rough and ready analysis with it – it’s not going to be perfect but it will get you going. Equally, some organisations think they have great data but it’s sat in a database and nobody tries to extract it, it goes to waste.”

“Small but complete data is better than having massive data,” says Prest. But for machine learning projects that do need to be fed large, granular sets of information for robust data analysis, you can supplement it with large sets of open data – the datasets below might provide inspiration.

As Prest explains, open data can tell you a lot about the context in which you work: “Presumably as a charity you will have data on the beneficiaries you’re engaging or services you’re delivering. It’s actually really helpful to put that into a big picture and understand more about the population in which you work, whether it’s using Office of National Statistics data, Census data, or even data from media coverage. That can really help you with planning where to deliver services to, understand levels of need in different communities, figure out where to expand your services or design entirely new services.”

If you’re interested in using datasets like this to support your mission, you might be interested to know that Microsoft are offering an exclusive number of free one-on-one workshops for charities to use machine learning and data to further their cause: click here to read more.


Open datasets worth exploring

UK Data Service – The UK Data Service claims to be the UK’s largest collection of social, economic and population data resources, including UK census data and government funded surveys. You can browse over 6,000 digital data collections for research and teaching purposes covering an extensive range of key economic and social data, both quantitative and qualitative, and spanning many disciplines and themes.

Office of National Statistics – The ONS is the UK’s largest independent producer of national statistics and supplies a large variety of datasets, ranging from business, economy and employment to population and societal data.

NHS digital – Formally known as the Health and Social Care Information Centre, NHS Digital has responsibility for standardising, collecting and publishing data and information from across the health and social care system in England. Over a thousand datasets are available on a variety of sobjects from care quality through to population health and the outcome of treatments.

Openly Local  – Launched by the Social Charity Digital, Openly Local provides open UK local authority data from 160 UK councils on 12,000 elected local officials, 8,000 committees, and over 100,000 committee meetings. Its council dashboard shows the distribution of £14 billion of local government spending, between private, public and charitable contractors.

London Datastore – The London Datastore is a free and open data-sharing portal where anyone can access data relating to the capital.  Whether The site provides over 700 datasets to help you understand the city and develop solutions to London’s problems, with topics ranging from employment, transport and environment to housing, health and population stats.

Met Office – On the Met Office website, you can find historic UK climate and weather data from long-running stations, some of which go back 100 years. The pages are updated each month to reflect the latest month’s weather across the UK.

Ordnance Survey – OS open data products (OS OpenData) are a set of digital maps of Great Britain, available for anyone to use, for any purpose. Choose from maps at different detail levels to many different geographical datasets overlaid with information including addresses, postcodes, location names, transport networks, political boundaries, crime and pollution. Ordnance Survey OpenData products are free under the Open Government Licence but they ask that you acknowledge them when using them.

Justice Data Lab – Justice Data Lab is run by a team of analysts at the Ministry of Justice, providing organisations that have worked with offenders and would like to understand the impact of their intervention access to central information on reoffending. The service provides this information to help organisations to assess the impact of their work on reducing reoffending.

Free Company Data Product -The Free Company Data Product is a downloadable data snapshot containing basic company data of live companies on the Companies House register. Companies House is now part of the Public Data Group (with Met Office, Ordnance Survey and Land Registry), which was set up to maximise the value of the data held by member organisations and make it available free of charge.

EU Open Data Portal – Looking further afield, the EU Open Data Portal is a central hub for free open data published by EU institutions and bodies. Subjects range from trade, economics and finance to environment, employment, agriculture, law, politics, education and communication.

World Health Organisation –  The WHO data repository is a gateway to the world’s health-related statistics and datasets across 194 countries and can be categorised by country or theme (there are over 35).

IMF Data – The International Monetary Fund publishes data on international finances, debt rates, foreign exchange reserves, commodity prices and investments.

360 Giving – 360Giving supports grantmakers to publish their grants data in an open, standardised way and helps people to understand and use the data to support decision-making and learning across the charitable giving sector. – Find data published by central government, local authorities and public bodies to help you build products and services.

Google Trends – Find out what people are searching for on Google.


Applications for the Microsoft AI workshops are open now until the 13th July for a limited number of charities to attend. To apply, go to application page here.