How Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research went big on analytics – with no budget

Charities shouldn’t let budget issues scare them away from big data, writes Owen Bowden, insight and analysis manager at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research

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'Dare to dream and don’t let budget limitations prevent you from thinking big'

 

Last March, Information Age published research from Eduserv revealing that 75% of charities have no IT strategy in place to support digital transformation. At Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, we place digital at the heart of what we do and always strive to innovate in this space.

The London Bikeathon is one example of where this innovation is apparent. The event is now in its 16th year after last year’s generated £800,000 to help beat blood cancer – a 12% increase over 2012.

The event has grown hugely from the original suggestion by a volunteer for a ‘London Marathon for cycling’, but our ability to monitor ongoing performance had not kept pace. We needed better ways to track performance through digital business intelligence and better reporting to show a clear link between the event’s success and the systems that helped us make better-informed decisions.

What we needed was a new reporting suite for our events team to allow them to make evidence-based decisions.

>See also: Big data: not a magic pill, but an antidote

It had to improve on our existing model – a cumbersome set of manually generated reports and ad-hoc requests – while being simple to use and professional to look at. And of course this also had to be achieved with no budget – but these necessary efficiencies often give birth to innovation.

Open source and charities

As a charity, our default decision on software is open source. Our CMS is Drupal, common across the charity sector, and our CRM is a specialist non-profit CRM called CiviCRM.

Applying this open-source approach to our digital offering insures that having little or no budget to achieve work is not as daunting as it might seem.

We are not just using open-source software to save money. We make contributions of time, code and resources to the software we use.

Just as our research into blood cancer benefits the wider cancer community, our commitment to open-source software benefits this open-source community.

We co-organise a group of charities seeking to collaborate through open-source software, including Comic Relief, RNIB and The Wellcome Trust. And while there is certainly competition within the charity sector, there is also collaboration – by sharing, we increase the impact we all can achieve and are more efficient as a result.

After weighing up several options to improve reporting, we decided to evaluate the free community edition of Pentaho’s open-source business analytics software.

Pentaho’s dual business model of offering open source and enterprise editions makes it a highly attractive option: an open-source product that is led by all the business needs of a strategic, professional offering.

Using the open-source edition does mean more development in-house, but this is something that we are used to tackling and something that our budget necessitated.

Our goal of having professional dashboards was not reached overnight and, as with any serious bicycle ride, it took several stages until we reached the desired solution.

Fortunately Pentaho’s platform contains a plugin called ctools that ensured these stages could be completed quickly and without compromising user interface quality.

In stage one, we built a limited-scope dashboard to give our team a year-on-year comparison of entrants. Stage two added entry fees and fundraising information.

We developed stage three after further consultation with the events team, whose members wanted to be able to forecast the number of race participants. 

After analysing previous years’ entries, we included a simple linear forecast based on current trends. At this later stage we gained the expertise of the Pentaho community,

The inventor of the ctools dashboard plugin is a Portuguese company called Webdetails, which Pentaho acquired last year.

When Pedro Alves, Webdetails’ GM and Pentaho's senior VP of community, learned of our use of ctools, he offered the services of Webdetails to further develop the London Bikeathon dashboard we had started. 

Webdetails’ pro-bono work accelerated our development to a place we would not have been able to achieve in the same time period, and Pentaho continues to donate free consulting time as needed to refine our dashboards and reports.

After we completed our project, Pedro shared the work with the followers of his blog, one of whom was a senior Pentaho consultant named Dan Keeley.

Dan’s family had recently been affected by blood cancer and upon learning of our use of Pentaho he volunteered his time to help us further develop our business intelligence capabilities with our CRM data.

The fantastic thing about Dan’s work is that we are able to release it and share it with approximately 10,000 other non-profit organisations using CiviCRM.

The difference analytics makes

So how did the dashboard help us to run our most successful event on record? A month after we launched the dashboard, it became clear that our participant numbers were significantly lower than in previous years.

We quickly spotted that these lower numbers were a result of the early-bird ticketing offer not being marketed and communicated as successfully as in the previous year.

As a result, we altered course and launched a revised ticket-pricing scheme that allowed us to quickly and efficiently rectify the situation.

>See also: Big data and mapping – a potent combination

Since Pentaho is a big data platform, our dashboard is capable of advanced functionality like blending live information coming from Twitter, Facebook and Google Analytics with data in our CRM system. This means our events teams don’t need to spend time reconciling different data types, and can focus solely on making decisions.

More broadly, the dashboard helped us to embed an evidence-based culture within our sports team, enabling all team members to immediately access all data across the event.

Fundraising teams quickly saw the advantages of having data so readily available, and what it could do for future projects. This work is now being replicated to our range of sporting events.

All this work means the insight team can now focus on additional insights to data rather than spending time on creating reports. Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research will ensure we share this work with other charities, amplifying the impact that we have benefited from.

So my advice to charities and businesses alike is: dare to dream and don’t let budget limitations prevent you from thinking big.