Data in Social Sector – Boon or Bane ?

UNICEF, in many of its reports state that “right data in the right hands at the right time leads to decisions better informed and outcomes more equitable”. This message, while on one hand highlights the importance of data driven insights, also creates a doubt about the repercussions if the data is not handled properly or is misinterpreted.

Data can play an important role in delivering successful programmes, be it to help donors assess the return on their investments, inform strategic decisions, enable managers to monitor work on-ground and across locations, help field staff take corrective measures, or provide organisations with the necessary information to reflect on what’s working and what’s not over time, functions, and geographies. These questions seek to help you reflect and ensure that your data processes stay relevant and in line with your needs. Remember, data is a tool to help you reach your end goal(s); it isn’t the goal in itself. So keep reflecting on whether your data processes and efforts are helping you get there.

Today, not just the corporate sector but also the government is increasingly shifting to evidence based policy making. In 2015, NITI Aayog set up a Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office to focus on reliability of social data gathering towards policy guidance. Corporate are pumping money into capturing CSR data onto analytics dashboards. While there are no doubts on importance of data, but sceptics often highlight that most of these data gathering depend on good quality data inputs from ground level and no one seems to be focussing on overcoming those issues.

Let’s analyse some of the key challenges related to data in social sector and how to overcome them.

The challenges

It is critical to ensure that all measures to ensure high data quality are taken so that it acts as an asset and an effective tool to monitor and evaluate your work. However, there are issues in data collection at ground level, ranging from non-uniform data collection methodologies, non-comprehensiveness of data set as well as data entry errors.

Firstly, If the sampling is not done in the correct or ideal way, the data collected may not be an accurate representation of the entire demography you work with. Secondly, if the person who is collecting the data, do not understand the end purpose of this data gathering, data context may go wrong. Large number of small size NGOs working at grassroots often do not have resources to focus on data gathering and corporate / government isn’t doing much to enhance capabilities on enumeration either with ground level staff or anganwadi workers.

Thirdly, if the data input gets wrong, the whole analysis and therefore the whole recommendation based on that analysis can go wrong. Fourthly, often the one who is doing analysis, is disconnected with the on ground context, that may or can influence the data. Also, using only quantitative data and not qualitative methods eg. Interviews and group discussions, can often lead to wrong interpretations. Survey data can never provide the picture what some of the other methods like use of digital media, photographs, videos etc. are also added. With smartphones, a lot of these things are much easier now. It is also important to sensitise the community on the purpose of the survey, to ensure that the data collected is not biased based on individual household perception.

Beyond these basics, there are other challenges as well in using data in social sector, eg. The true impact of social reform / social project comes not just one month or one year later but often many years later from when the project has been implemented. Also, In social milieu, there are often multiple actors working at same time, therefore unlike a science experiment there is no direct attribution for an outcome to one single activity. It is for this reason that RCT (randomised control trial) is becoming popular measure to check true impact. However, it has its own challenges of social ethics of purposefully monitoring someone and not extending support to them.

Based on its years of experience working with data of social sector, NuSocia has developed a Social Research Ethics code. The code ensures that beneficiary data is protected and used only for the project purpose. The publically available form of the code can be accessed at the NuSocia website.

Data privacy issues are generally being talked about on social media in relation to the big tech firms but what about the data being collected everyday across the world for the vulnerable clasess. There are no clear policies about such data and if it is brought in, the whole social impact place might actually suffer from lack of publically available data on social parameters.

The Solutions

Given the challenges discussed above, there needs to be a focus on proper training / capacity building for the front line data enumerators in addition to using proper tools for data capturing with in-built mechanisms for validation.

As someone has said, true value of data lies in its usage. Organisations should reflect on what decisions they are looking to drive by collecting a certain set of data. It is actually worthwhile to also do a sample check, possibly with dummy data to review whether what you want to collect will help you achieve your objective.

Recently NuSocia conducted a need assessment exercise in the state of Odisha. There were 13,500+ household data collected on socio-economic parameters through a detailed questionnaire coded into a digital format. Enumerators were trained on the tool and then enumerators went to do the survey in person. While on field for this assessments, constant dialogue between the analysis team and enumeration team ensured that not just data but the mood on the ground is also captured.

Also, while investing in data gathering machinery, systems and resources, organisations must look at what data is required for day-to-day decision making and what is required only for review to decide the periodicity of data gathering. Such data, at appropriate frequency should be made available to all relevant stakeholders in easy to understand formats to increase transparency and accountability.


Data can play an important role in delivering successful programmes. Having said that, anyone who is working at grassroot level in social sector often is seen asking the question, “Can change be summarised in numbers?” We do believe, that if necessary caution are taken, with quality data, social businesses can better address the social challenges, if not really answer the question.

NuSocia is a social impact advisory firm and often engages with data from its raw form to refined forms, towards designing efficient social impact programs for its clients. 

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