Research Results Part 4: Which Business Models for Data Literacy Efforts?

January 29, 2016 in Research

After researching the definitions of data literacy, along with the methodologies and impact of data literacy efforts, we looked into the question of business models: are there sustainable business models that can support data literacy efforts in the long term? Along with looking at how data literacy efforts can support themselves financially, we also looked for opportunities for linkages with other efforts.

No clear business model for sustainability

Many of the School of Data local communities and external organisations that provide data literacy training are using a mix of foundational funding and fee for service to sustain themselves. The organisations using this model are opportunistic in getting organisations and individuals to pay for trainings when they can, but a lack of understanding about data processes among clients is often a problem. At this point, there is not a clear ‘sustainable business model’ that would direct data literacy organisations towards longevity. To understand better the business models of established organisations working at the intersection of technology and social change, we looked at a two of them: Aspiration and Tactical Technology Collective. 


Aspiration is a US-based NGO that operates globally, providing a range of services to build capacity and community around technology for social change. Over the last decade, under Allen Gunn’s (Gunner) leadership, Aspiration has gained a strong reputation for delivering trainings and events that focus on strategic and tangible outcomes while strengthening communities of practice.  Aspiration has championed an approach known as participatory events, developing knowledge-sharing and leadership development methodologies that prioritize active dialog-based learning. The philosophy and design focus on maximizing interaction and peer learning while making spare use of one-to-many and several-to-many session formats such as presentations and panels. Aspiration has been able to scale their model across a range of meeting sizes and purposes, from smaller team strategy sessions and retreats to large-scale events, such as the Mozilla Festival, which brings together over 1,500 participants.

Aspiration’s services are in high demand, with clients ranging from both small civil society organisations to larger international NGO’s and foundations. They have seen a gradual reduction in reliance on grants, and now generate the majority of their funds through earned income from strategic consulting services, events, and trainings. In order to scale service delivery, program staff have all been trained in the unique skill sets required for delivering participatory events and providing strategic services within the Aspiration frame of analysis. The organization now has five full-time staff able to deliver both live events and strategic services.

Tactical Technology Collective

Fee for service work on utilising data in social change has had an increased market in the civil society sector over the last five to seven years. However, many social change organisations have been unaware of the amount of resources and effort it takes to analyse and produce outputs such as data visualisations and info-graphics. A more mature organisation with experience in utilising information and technologies in activism, Tactical Technology Collective, set up a social enterprise, Tactical Studios, to undertake data-driven projects for large-scale NGO’s. They attempted to better educate clients by engaging them in creation of design briefs and a more intentional process. Tactical Studios was marginally successful as most advocacy and activist connected organisations look for quick and low-cost solutions to their data visualisations. 

Using collaborations and linkages to improve the understanding of data needs

A hopeful example in developing the capacity of organisations to understand the amount of resources needed to utilise data is in the School of Data’s Embedded Fellowship with Global Witness. Through a six-month engagement, the fellow, Sam Leon, was able to provide data trainings at all levels of the organisation – from senior management to the front line staff. This has helped the organisation, rather than just the individuals, to improve its data literacy.  What this points to is a need to differentiate between individual data literacy and organisational data literacy. While the School of Data curriculum addresses individual data literacy, efforts like the fellowship programme, that have long term engagements succeed in building organisational capacities. Being more intentional in articulating both the difference and how they complement each other will likely lead to a greater ability to raise funds and develop deeper relationships with allies.

Other potential areas for linkages and collaboration on the School of Data Curriculum that could lead to greater sustainablity for data literacy organisations:

    • Schools and universities who are interested in expanding their course offerings to better address data literacy amongst students. An opportunity for chapters is to work with local academia in adapting the School of Data curriculum to address the needs of students who will potentially be using open-data in their careers. Teachers are also in need of training on the pedagogy in regards to understanding data and it’s contexts, as opposed to understanding how to use tools. Academic grants and funding could support this adaptation.
    • Civil society efforts that are working towards the release of data, particularly by governments, for use in the public domain. One area that has a strong need for greater data literacy is the open governments, transparency and accountability movements, whose area of expertise is in pressuring governments through advocacy campaigns to release data. Many do not have capacity to provide training to those who might actually use the data. In this regard, a conclusion of the International Open Data Conference in 2015 (as stated in its final report) poses the need for work to identify and embed core competencies for working with open data within existing organizational training, formal education, and informal learning programs.
    • Development initiatives, particularly those that are focused on supporting an emerging private sector that will be inspired by data for use in innovation.  Access and use-ability of open data could be exploited by the private sector in ways that could expand data literacy in emerging economies.  Current development initiatives could greatly benefit from engaging with School of Data chapters and engaging with the curriculum.

In order to sustain a long term data literacy initiative, it is likely that funding will need to come from a mix of foundational funding and fee for service work through expanding the diversity of clients, collaborations and linkages. As open-data usability and access continues to improve, it will be critical that Data Literacy organisations stay on top of future trends and continue to shape their curriculum to meet the needs of the communities they aim to serve. Hopefully, funders and social change organisations will also continue to evolve in their understanding of the importance of data and the resources involved in making it useful to stakeholders. As a network, the School of Data local communities will need to share information about how they grow and evolve sustainable business models.

In our next blog post ‘Recommendations for Improving Data Literacy Efforts’ we will discuss the conclusions that we have made as a result of undertaking this research effort.

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