Using free tools to survey community groups and then perhaps combining that with open data. An example from BOSF, part 1

BOSF website
BOSF website

Open_Government_LicenceAs part of the open data project at the Social Media Surgeries we’ve been working with Birmingham Open Spaces Forum (BOSF) to see if we can find a way of using data to help them in their work. BOSF is a network organisation that aims to bring together all the people in Birmingham with an interest in open spaces – so Friends of Parks Groups, allotments, community gardeners etc. There are close to 100 small community groups involved in this wider network.

To help them we first need to know what data related problem they want to  solve. We met and explored various possibilites but plumped for a very practical problem – how do they  way to collect evidence for how much income the groups generate in their respective areas. This was worked down to 2 simple questions.

  • How to collect the data
  • How to display it (and for whom and where)

At this point we’re not using open data, but it’s a good place to start to get a group understanding how to use data, and some of the tools that can be used to visualize and manipulate it.

After some discussion with the group it was decided that best way to collect the information they wanted was through Google Forms.

Google Forms is a free survey tool that does more than just create questionnaires, it allows you to embed videos and photos to illustrate your questions and collaborate with other Google users, but more importantly in this instance it collects responses directly to a spreadsheet so that the data collected can be quickly accessed and used with other tools.

Google Forms

To be able to use Forms you first need Google email (Gmail), which, if you haven’t already got an account, is a 2 minute sign up process here. It is then one of the functions available in Google Drive and building a form is an option under “Create new”.

Once you’ve done that you should end up with a page that looks like this:

Google Form

Now you can begin to build your survey. There are a number of question types you can choose from, they include, among others, plain text, multiple choice, scale, date and time with the option to make each a “Required question” so that completion is mandatory to complete the form.

Some even have bespoke settings that allow you to make choices based on the answers (i.e. if yes go to Question 5) and advanced settings that will let you refine it further (text must contain  ***, number greater *** than etc etc).

Google Form Question Type

As you set each question you can give it a description to give people pointers as to the sort of response you’re after, or if there are options on how to answer.

For example

PostcodeChrsitmas Question






To add more questions you just need to click add new item and when you think you’re done, click done.

To create the form that’s all you need to do. There are options on the screen to track progress and requiring people to log in to leave responses etc. And you can also add page breaks so only a set amount of questions appear per page, and change the theme to make it look pretty but at it’s simplest your form is complete.

To see an example of a simple form I’ve created click here (you can even fill it in if you like).

Collecting Data

Now you have your form you can share it widely to start collecting responses. Google have also made this easy – you can share it directly from the creation page by clicking “Send form”, view the live form to get a direct link or grab the embed code to put it on your own blog/website (go to File  > Embed)

Sharing a Goolge Form



We worked with BOSF to create a questionnaire that they then sent out to their members and was also blogged about on their site.

They sent that out this week with 4 weeks to get responses back.

As the responses come in they’ll use the spreadsheet to total up the figures city wide, breakdown the figures by ward and evidence how important the groups are in their neighbourhoods.

They’ll also be able to see a rough breakdown of how each group raises money, and then potentially signpost them to each others dependent on their strengths (bid writing vs fundraising etc).

One note of caution when collecting numbers: you can get carried away.  We started here just wanting one simple number – how much money did this groups bring in and where are they.  It become tempting to started looking for lots of other information, but staying focussed on a simple achievable and thing probably improves the liklihood that people will help and you will succeed.

Once they’ve completed collecting the data they can then turn some of the responses  into a graphic. By using Google Form’s built in “Show summary of responses” option it will automatically generate pie charts and graphs for the relevant sections – which are sometimes easier to to understand than just rows and columns of figures.

What next?

Once that data has all been collected there are other things BOSF could do. Maybe the could use the figures to calculate the value of the volunteer hours to the areas that they serve.

Maybe they could look at using use Google fusion tables to create a maps to show the income across different areas of the city and maybe they could then use that map to compare it to Open Data Communities Map of deprivation to show the good they do in the lowest income areas…

We’ll just have to wait and see what’s most appropriate for them at the next surgery.