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Starting from here: the case for a youth sector data standard


There’s an old joke about someone asking for directions, and being told “if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here” - while it’s not a side-splitter, it does provide a way into what we’re trying to achieve by developing a data standard for the youth sector. 
Asking for directions implies you have a specific destination in mind. We, and others, have had this destination in mind for a while, but it’s felt really challenging to work out a potential route and take the first step. And then COVID-19 happened. It became very clear, very quickly, that, we, along with a broad range of colleagues and stakeholders across the youth sector in the UK, all want to get to the same place, where we are able to produce a consistent, comparable breakdown of the “state of the sector” during the pandemic, to have the ability to answer some key questions:

  • How many young people are accessing some kind of youth provision right now?
  • How many are not being reached at all? 
  • What is the nature of the provision on offer: what activities and support are young people accessing, how often, and in which ‘spaces’?
  • Who is delivering these activities, and what do they need to do it well?
  • What do we collectively know about the needs and priorities of young people, and how well does the provision available to them meet those needs?
  • How are the organisations working with and for young people being affected by the pandemic? 

With this as our destination, the old punchline holds true: starting from here is still pretty challenging. Youth organisations, funders and commissioners do not have a clear, shared set of definitions for all the words above, nor the consistent process for collecting and aggregating key pieces of information against these definitions, which would provide the foundation for answering our shared questions. Nor do we have the means to coordinate our requests for this information. We’ve worked with colleagues at NYA to put together this list of surveys for young people and the youth sector issued since the crisis began: we’re over 90, and still counting.
But - to coin another phrase - we are where we are: acknowledging this shared challenge is a critical first step in the right direction. And the pandemic provided us with both the push and the pull to take that first step. This is the primary significance of this first version of a youth sector data standard: it communicates a shared recognition, from key regional and national infrastructure bodies, funders and commissioners, that if we want to reach our destination, this is the course we need to take. In the few weeks since we launched this initiative, we’ve been heartened by the response we’ve had: 175 organisations have completed the online form we put together, and we’ve had widespread support for what we’re trying to achieve. 
It’s also become clear that we need to be clear about what a data standard is, and why we think it will help us all get to where we want to be. ‘The standard’ is the set of pieces of information and questions we’ve developed: with input from a broad range of colleagues in the sector. Our aim for the standard is to develop, refine and expand this set, and keep working with colleagues to ensure that we’re all using these questions, whenever we’re gathering information from youth organisations. 
So ‘the standard’ is not this online form: the form rather makes use of the standard. The form is a way for us to gather some useful data about what’s happening right now, with a particular focus on the impact of the lockdown. It also gives us useful insights into how we can expand on and improve the standard itself, keeping us on track towards our original intended destination. 
Probably the most relevant comparison for this is the development of the 360 Giving standard for grant makers in the UK. Over eight or nine years, this has grown from an innovative project supported by forward-thinking funders, into a normal and expected part of “what grant-makers do”. By collecting and publishing information in the same way, it makes it possible to combine all of the data, and make it accessible to all, through applications like Grantnav.
It’s worth emphasising that getting 360 Giving to this point took a lot of effort, over many years. It also involved working with organisations with much greater resources and capacity than most in the youth sector. We’re mindful that building a ‘Grantnav for the youth sector’ will not come easy, but with the support and engagement we’ve had so far, it feels achievable.
In the short term, we’ll be sharing some of our own analysis of responses thus far: we are also publishing a weekly update of all of the underlying data, so anyone can do their own analysis. We’ll then be working on the next version of the standard, beyond COVID-19, and mapping out what form it should most usefully take, where it can be used most effectively, and thinking through how best to partner with others on the use of the standard, across different stakeholders (particularly our colleagues in the devolved nations). 
This is just the beginning of what we hope to be a long and convivial journey, finding our way together, from here to there. Please do share the word widely, and, as ever, get in touch with your thoughts, questions and requests. Drop me an email - -  or find me on twitter @ejanderton.