THE DATA SCIENCE OF RELIGION
For any organisation that is engaging with the community it is important to be fully up to date with what is actually going on in the community and understanding the diversity that exists. The word on the street will always be an effective tool, but there is no substitute for hard data (well, of course we would say that!). Data, whatever form it may take, will not have all the answers and should not be used in isolation but it is nonetheless an essential tool for devising strategies and implementing tactics. NGOs are becoming increasingly aware of this and local churches are no exception. With the masses of publicly accessible data currently available it is essential that this is embraced.
Faith communities and bodies are surprisingly up to date with the latest tools and techniques available. They recognise if they want to provide facilities and services to support the community they need to know with precision what is needed and where. Few outside the church will know the National Church Life Survey runs the largest population survey in Australia outside of the census with 100,000s of responders (and now probably holds the title of the most efficiently run census!). This data is invaluable as churches look to engage in the community.
So what do churches need to know? A lot of things. It is not just about the population mix, but the latest statistics on the economy, crime, social services, education, unemployment, amongst many other things. It is about breadth of knowledge and tying these things together ideally as simply as possible. This layered approach helps provide genuine insight. A good example can be seen here - this is a comprehensive example of community statistics for the hypothetical St Saviours church (who have uprooted from their fictional Shoreditch, London location to the sunny skies of Windsor in Melbourne).
Click on image below to access the FULL INTERACTIVE REPORT ...
These sorts of tools also allow the churches to compare their own internal data to the population around them. It helps very much to see where their resources are located and where good performance and under performance is occurring.
Below is an example of a visualisation St Saviours church did for when they had capacity to run some toddler activities. Rather than set up locations to the North of their building where there are very few infants, they were better off heading South to where there will be greater need. A next step for this could be mapping on charity data and seeing who else is providing similar services and look for any unfulfilled gaps in this area.
Mapping the Percentage of Under Five Years Olds by SA1 (2016 estimates)
So where do we find all this data? The list below gives a good starting point of where localised data sources can be found (click on the list to access the links). Fortunately many organisations are getting in on the act with providing open data and we should be encouraging more to do so. This is a growing list and most of this data is updated regularly with the latest updates.
This data can be used very effectively to plan strategy and be right on the pulse in local communities. And all of it is free. It allows churches and other NGO's to go forward with certainty knowing there is a need for the community services they are offering and engaging in the appropriate way. These tools are relevant to all NGOs, both in terms of assessing community need while also engaging supporters and donors.