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Meet the Meetup: Sheffield Data for Good

We caught up with Tom French to find out how the Sheffield Data for Good meetup is using data to tackle the city’s biggest social problems.

Sheffield Data for Good brings together data and social expertise to unearth valuable insight from Sheffield’s voluntary, charity and community organisations, helping them make a positive difference to people’s lives.

Meetup founder, Tom French speaks to us about how the events are going and how the idea has been shaped and developed to deliver real positive impact in Sheffield.

What made you want to start the Sheffield Data for Good meetup?

It began with my day job, which is in the research and evaluation team of Good Things Foundation, where we work with some of the most vulnerable and ‘hard to reach’ people in society.

The idea of Sheffield Data for Good came from wanting to understand some of the challenges facing these people in more detail. We then faced the question of how we found new ways (and, importantly, resource) to help with this understanding. Asking people to help just Good Things Foundation for free was a bit cheeky, so we decided to think of a more independent, open avenue to explore.

I knew of people doing great stuff with data for social good – people like DataKind UK – so we started thinking about ways we could do something similar in Sheffield. We also spoke with local people who had experience of setting up similar initiatives to see whether there was an appetite. Then we started a Meetup group and it went from there.

How is the meetup going so far?

We have held nine events and from my perspective, it’s going well. As an organiser it’s hard to objectively assess that sometimes. I have massive bouts of imposter syndrome too – why am I qualified to run this?

That said, it feels like it’s got real momentum and we consistently get 15–25 people turning up. People are engaged and up for it too, which is great. It hasn’t always been like that though. There have been some pretty quiet events along the way, but they always help because they keep you on your toes!

What did you do to get the meetup off the ground?

Once we’d decided to try it, we just got something in the diary. I need to say a massive thank you to my colleague, Tim Brazier, for helping me over the first hurdle. His calm assurance made me feel able to just try it.

If it didn’t work, then so what? And we treated the first event as an opportunity to run the idea past people and ask for their input on how it should be shaped. We deliberately kept it loose for the first session.

We also chose our language carefully when promoting the event. We knew early on that we wanted a range of experiences so we didn’t want to make it sound too technical, data-wise.

It helped having Sheffield Digital as a channel through which to promote the group. We also did the usual social media push on Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as contacting people like Voluntary Action Sheffield.

How can data and social expertise help to solve the city’s social problems? Do you have any success stories from the event so far?

We’ve seen a key success story through our recent work with Roundabout, a youth homelessness charity in the city. They have very kindly and generously worked with us to open up some of their data (anonymously, of course) so that our members have been able to get stuck into real data. We have run two ‘hacks’ with them now and they seem really chuffed with what’s happened as a result.

Often charities don’t have the time to unearth the valuable insight that’s lying around in their systems – whatever form they take. We’ve demonstrated with Roundabout that in a short period of time, with a range of enthusiastic people in a room, it’s possible to get to this insight. And in a practical way too; not just to say: “Hmmm, that’s interesting” – but to uncover things that mean Roundabout can make changes that will have a positive impact on people’s lives.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s why the social expertise – by which we mean real, on-the-ground experience of the challenge at hand – is so important to what the meetup is about. Without that steer, it could easily become about who’s better at this analysis technique or that programming language, rather than the focus on the people behind the data tables.

How is the city’s meetup scene looking at the moment?

Really healthy. There are certainly plenty of meetups going on. I must confess to having not been to that many, but that’s something I’m keen to change.

How have you approached a code of conduct?

We’ve been pretty loose with this. I would stress the point that we have taken data protection very seriously – but that’s slightly separate to a code of conduct. We certainly don’t have anything written down, but we do try to promote an atmosphere of inclusivity at the meetups we hold.

We state that any level of skill or experience or involvement is OK. There is no right or wrong and all contributions, whatever they may be, are equally valid. This seems to have worked so far. We’ve also had honest feedback from people along the way, which has helped us tweak our approach.

What are your biggest challenges?

I would have to say that access to meaningful – and Sheffield-specific – data is our biggest challenge, or at least our most immediate one. Now that we’ve settled on a format through our work with Roundabout, we’re keen to find the next organisation that may want to benefit from volunteers with data science/analysis and questioning skills. That’s not easy though. And it takes a lot of time and effort to build that trust. Thankfully we’re all committed to putting in that time and effort.

What can people do to help or get involved?

In terms of what happens next, we’re all ears and would welcome conversations with anyone that feels our meetups could be better. We’re only just getting warmed up.

You’re all welcome to come along and contribute at any time. Feel free to suggest topics and challenges we should explore as well. And please spread the word, particularly amongst the charity, voluntary and community sector.

Find out more and sign up to the Sheffield Data for Good Meetup. Or get in touch via Twitter – I’m always happy to talk (at length!) about Sheffield Data for Good and my experiences setting it up more generally.