Learning from the Shelter Databank

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28th June: Tristan Carlyon from Shelter

Shelter's databank

mySociety’s Data Briefings are all about how to present complex data online, simply. Shelter’s Databank tool is one of the better solutions we’ve seen to this exact problem, so we invited Tristan Carlyon, a key player in its creation, to tell us about it.

The Shelter Databank pulls together government data on housing issues from a number of sources, and makes it accessible online.

Although the underlying data is all freely available in various places, it wasn’t previously easy for the casual user to find or to use. Conversely, and crucially, you don’t need to be an expert to use Databank – it has a very simple interface and it outputs the data you need, in the format you need.

 “I created my ideal resource”.

As with so much great software, the Databank was born when Tristan identified something that would make his own job easier. But it soon became clear that there would be a wider appreciative audience.

A quick internal assessment helped Tristan calculate that the Shelter media team were spending a total of one day a week answering queries from the press. This fact alone justified the project – it’d make a large efficiency saving.

The benefits wouldn’t just be internal:  it was also an opportunity to drive traffic to the Shelter website and increase brand awareness for the charity.

At a previous Breakfast, the question had arisen of how you can get buy-in from higher management for this kind of project, when it may seem not to precisely align with your organisation’s main remit.

As it happens, the Databank tool does fit pretty solidly within Shelter’s charitable mission – one of their aims is: “to educate the public concerning the nature, causes and effects of homelessness [..] and to conduct and procure research concerning the same and to make available the useful results thereafter to the public.”

 But there are other benefits too, even if your organisation doesn’t have a similar remit. Tristan confirmed that having an effective, useful tool builds the brand, cementing it more firmly in people’s minds.

Plus, publishing this kind of data enables Shelter to engage with many of their target and actual stakeholders – press, elected representatives at all levels, academics, grassroots campaigners, and developers.

Looks simple… works hard

Tristan took us through the tool’s interface: it may appear basic, but a lot of thought has gone into every element. Some of the points he pulled out were:

  •  The input form is all on one page – and if you go back to amend your search, your previous input is saved.
  • The big red ‘get data’ button is unambiguous and unmissable – and happens to be Tristan’s favourite feature of the whole tool.
  • Search queries generate a URL that incorporates the search parameters, and can be easily shared or modified.
  • Glossary tags ensure that any technical terms can be understood by the general public just as well as industry insiders.
  • The tool is free of any spin. Despite its placement on a charity website, it does not exhort you to donate. Its only aim is to present the data without comment or editorial, which helps retain its integrity.

OK, it’s built. Now you have to run the thing.

The Databank was built within eight weeks, alongside other development projects. Like almost any such project – and as we at mySociety see with our own data-related sites – it couldn’t just be built and then left to do its work. As its underlying external data sources are refreshed, it must also be updated, and this is rarely a job that can be automated.

In fact, Tristan currently does the updates manually, taking about a day’s work each quarter. He reckons that it’s still well worth it. The tool still offers massive efficiency savings, for him and for many others. Hundreds of subscribers are signed up to receive an alert whenever the data is refreshed.

Shelter’s internal systems ensure that projects are always retrospectively assessed to see whether they met the objectives in the initial project plan.

The Databank stands up well to scrutiny, being one of Shelter’s most consistently visited pages, and continuing to save time for the whole team. Reputation, perhaps, cannot be measured, but it is not a great leap to see that a useful tool like this can only enhance the charity’s image.

We’ll be continuing our Data for Breakfast briefings, so if you’d like to hear about the next one, please drop us a line with your name and the organisation you work for.