Data for Good – A Personal Journey

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J Cromack – MD @ Wood for Trees


It isn’t every day you find yourself being nominated by your peers and then shortlisted for a couple of awards. I’m very humbled and honoured to have been shortlisted for Data for Good champion and Privacy & Trust champion at this year’s DataIQ Awards and I look forward to 30th September when the virtual ceremony takes place.

The nomination for Data for Good champion has led me to reflect on the journey I have taken over the last 5 years. From someone that was very happy to generate insights and predictions from financial and retail data relating to individuals, often with little regard to the tools we were using and the potential impact on the individual’s rights and freedoms. Nothing was off the table when it came to using the latest data sets and technology to help our clients improve their ROI. I’m not saying we ever did anything knowingly to harm individuals; it was always about delivering the right message to the right person at the right time, but as we have seen from the recent investigation into AdTech by the ICO, the methods deployed to achieve this can sometimes have serious and negative consequences.

To better understand my reflection point when I started to question my principles and ethics when it came to data you’ll need to read this, but I read a book on holiday and the rest they say is history.

This August (2020) its been 6 years since I read that book and 5 years since I became involved with Wood for Trees, a data analytics business focused primarily on the charity sector. I had heard about Wood for Trees some years earlier and I’d always thought it was a great business. Its purpose was simple, ’to help charities do the right thing with their data, so they could build a better future for the amazing causes they support.’  The Wood for Trees team were passionate about their clients as well as being a talented bunch of data analysts and data practitioners.  The only problem I could see was how do you make the Wood for Trees offering available and affordable to as many charities as possible, not just the bigger charities who had the budget for a Wood for Trees like service.

How could we democratise the great work Wood for Trees do across the sector? Help as many charities big and small better understand their supporter data to make them as effective as possible and ensure as much of those hard earned donations are spent on the causes they support. A true ‘data for good’ approach.

After a few years of being involved with Wood for Trees and meeting our clients I realised charities were more willing to share insights and knowledge with each other than other sectors I’d previously worked with. A regular question myself and the team were often asked was ‘how do we compare?’ This is when the answer to the question – ‘how could we democratise the great work Wood for Trees do’ – started to crystallise.

To help our clients understand how they compared to each other we would need to have a standard data model that could be applied across the sector.  Because Wood for Trees have focused on the charity sector for over 10 years we knew what KPIs mattered to the sector and what data was required to deliver these metrics. All we needed to do was deliver a consistency of measurement across the sector.

In 2019 we applied our collective expertise and experience and developed the Wood for Trees Core Charity Data Model, the CCDM.  An amazing collaborative effort across all our teams saw the data engineers build pipelines to on-board client’s data rapidly to the CCDM. The Consultant Analysts interpreted the requirements of our clients reporting needs, which were converted into stunning and easy to interpret data visualisations by our Power BI gurus!  In October 2019 we had the soft launch of InsightHub for Charities and in July this year we launched the benchmarking component of InsightHub, finally allowing our charities to answer the question, ‘How do I compare?’ against the aggregate of charities on the platform.

The approach we have taken means we can make a number of our services available to all charities, big and small. We have a range of reports available which help charities answer some fundamental questions about their current performance and how it can be improved. These reports simply connect to the CCDM, so once we’ve on-boarded the charities data (less data required for the simpler reports, more for the more detailed reports) the reports are available.

Not only that, we’ve made the reports available via a browser, so no downloading software or putting a strain on IT resources, or in the case of the smaller charities the very limited or non-existent IT resources. The data insights can also be made available to everyone within the charity, subject to certain access controls.

With prices starting from £2,000 per year to make it affordable to smaller charities, I truly believe Wood for Trees are doing their bit to help the sector become data curious and democratise our offering across the sector. A true ‘data for good’ solution.