The COVID-19 pandemic has put enormous pressure on our health care system and local public health response. However, a sometimes overlooked ‘front line’ in this public health emergency is the work of charities who support those facing both the direct health impacts of COVID-19 and the indirect consequences of the pandemic, including unemployment, poverty and mental health issues. Many charities are trying to support communities while also coming under increasing operational and financial pressure themselves.

Using data to understand capacity and need during the COVID-19 crisis

Access to good quality data during this crisis is enabling public health and health care professionals to understand system capacity and local need in an evolving context, and to make effective decisions. But when it comes to data, charities and funders vary hugely in their abilities and aspirations to access and use data, either their own or from official sources.

At NPC, we support charities and funders to have maximum impact. We thought this issue with data could potentially hold some charities back from being able to tackle the COVID-19 crisis effectively. With the help of the Health Foundation, we created the COVID-19 data dashboard for charities and funders, to regularly update interactive data on the crisis in the UK.

Cutting through the complexity of existing data

The dashboard makes official data already available in the public domain accessible in a clear and simple way and allows charities to share emerging data about their response. The main aim is to improve charities’ and funders’ understanding of the risks from COVID-19 in their area, but we hope it can also boost data literacy in the sector and be a test bed for models of data publication among charities. 

A challenge we faced, and continue to face, is deciding on the most important indicators of risk from the crisis, and therefore selecting the data to include in the dashboard. The pandemic is a health crisis, a loneliness crisis, an employment crisis, a child hunger crisis and many more things besides, each with its own charitable response. The charities tackling each issue have their own data needs.

The data we have selected are based on our own desk research and observations and we have been clear that we cannot provide a definitive map of need. We have therefore not weighted data against other data, because the relative value of each area will vary based on the cause a charity is trying to tackle: for example, a food bank will naturally prioritise understanding local food insecurities over access to health services.

The dashboard also highlights the different impacts of the pandemic on older people, single parents, and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, with data on young people being added soon.

Collating new data from charities

We also wanted to bring together new sources of data from across the charity sector. The other function of the dashboard, and perhaps its most radical element, is a section that displays data charities have provided us about the need created by the crisis. In the long term, we hope more charities will gather and publish data in formats that are trusted and used effectively. This will enable us to share a more nuanced picture of the needs that charities encounter in order to influence public health professionals, economists, politicians and funders.

The first partners sharing their data with us are anti-poverty charities Buttle UK and Turn to Us, providing an overview of the demand on their services across regions. We are also exploring the use of qualitative data about people’s lived experience of economic insecurity related to COVID-19 part of our dashboard.

We need a more collaborative approach to recover from this pandemic

I suspect regardless of sector, COVID-19 has shifted a lot of what we knew about need in this country. Data alone won’t solve the problem, but it is time for charities and funders to catch up. Getting there will be a slow process, and although there are a range of initiatives (including our own) pushing from within the sector, there is potential for more collaboration between charities, public health services and other organisations supporting communities who are experiencing health inequalities. 

We know that the UK’s recovery is not going to be straightforward; we’ll need to consider the wide range of factors that have shaped people’s experiences of the pandemic. To do this, we must work together across sectors. Is sharing data across our respective ‘front lines’ one important step in this battle? We at NPC certainly think so, and we appeal for all who agree to get in touch – email us at info@thinkNPC.org

Dan Corry (@DanRCorry) is the chief executive of NPC (@NPCthinks)

NPC are part of the Health Foundation’s Collaboration for Wellbeing and Health, taking collective action to address the wider determinants of health.

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