An interview with Kaj Siebert, CTO SFUK and Björn Vennema, Managing Director SFNL


Social Finance NL is part of the global Social Finance Global Network. We see many great developments within this network. For example Digital Labs from Social Finance UK. This success formula has grown into a special department that focuses entirely on the use of data and technology for social change. We spoke to Kaj Siebert, Chief Technology Officer at SFUK and Björn Vennema, Managing Director of SFNL, about this development.

Data is becoming an increasingly important part of how we deal with social issues and it’s an important part of the Social Finance approach. Björn, can you tell something about the use of data at SFNL?

“We actually use data at every stage of our work. In order to be able to make better decisions, but often also to deepen, understand and provide insight into social issues. A good example is the work we do for young adults in a vulnerable position. By looking at the statistics and underlying problems of young adults together with the Netherlands Youth Institute, we have mapped the local situation for each municipality in the Netherlands and what problems that might lead to. But we also use data to find out what works and what doesn’t work during interventions. This allows us to make adjustments together with our partners and to further improve the outcomes for the target group. Because in the end of the day, that’s what we use data for: to help people in a better way.”

In the UK they take the use of data a step further and established a special department: Digital Labs. Kaj, can you explain how the SF Digital Labs model works?

“The SF Digital Labs is more of a way of working than a defined piece of work. It is about recognising all the skills that already exist in the Social Finance network and how we can use data and digital to extend the impact of our work. The usual tools such as Excel are no longer sufficient for complex issues, both technically and in team collaboration. This can often be done much faster and easier with the help of digital tools. The development of these tools is central to our Digital Labs model. We focus on both the tools themselves, meaning the application of data and software in our projects, but also on new ways of working, such as Agile. Importantly, this doesn’t just apply to data and software. Almost any project can use agile and user-centric design to improve the outputs and de-risk the delivery. And being able to guide our clients through this process and show the benefits of these approaches is a big part of the Digital Labs model.”

Can you give an example of one of the projects within Digital Labs?

“A project that is particularly close to my heart is the “Family Context” project. In the current situation, a police officer, teacher or perhaps a doctor refers a child to youth care. Social workers then often have very short period of time to assess what the level of risk to the child is, and how to best support the child and their family. To get the full picture, the social worker

needs to understand the situation around the child, such as what support the family is already receiving, and what other factors may exist in the family situation.

But with the current working methods and systems, that information is not readily available. For example, often just determining who the members of a family are is not as simple or evident as it initially seems. The Family Context project aims to give social workers access to key pieces of information about the family situation that safeguards the child but preserves the privacy and rights of other related persons. Developed in collaboration with the national data regulator and ethics bodies, the project will deliver open guidance on data privacy and ethics as well as working examples of how to access and present key information to ensure it gives an accurate of the situation around the child.”

Björn, what can we learn from the Digital Labs model in the Netherlands?

“The learnings from these projects in the UK are very valuable, also for us in the Netherlands. And not just the learnings from applying data, but also for building digital tools. With this combination you can make insights more accessible for decisionmakers and make better choices in terms of policy and implementation. That of course goes hand in hand with ethical and practical issues, but I think they are comparable for the UK and the Netherlands. That is why much of the knowledge they gain at Social Finance UK can be used very well in the Netherlands. I am looking forward to putting this into practice with Dutch governments and funds. “

Why is the Digital Labs an important development for Social Finance?

Kaj: “The Digital Labs model gives Social Finance a chance to increase the impact of its projects as well as opening new opportunities. With increasing pressure on services to make better use of data to cut waste and deliver more, it’s important to understand the full implications of using data this way. Individual’s rights over their data, and the ethical implications of algorithmic decision making are still poorly understood in the sector, and data protection laws are often seen as a barrier rather than an enabler. By working with both lawmakers and front-line workers, we try to set best practices for how such projects can be implemented.”

Björn: “In the Netherlands it is extremely important that we make more use of data in the social policy area. Too often decisions about projects and programs are based on gut feeling, while we must look at the effectiveness of the program for the participants. Use of the right data is crucial for this. I am happy to see that this is increasingly recognized internationally. The Nobel Prize for Economy was recently awarded for research into poverty alleviation, which again showed that the organization of good experiments, good measurement and the use of data is crucial! As Social Finance, we are pre-eminently positioned to support governments, funds and implementation in making progress in this area in order to jointly tackle social issues more effectively. The development of Social Finance Digital Labs fits in perfectly.”

For more information on Digital Labs, go to