Making Sense of Data in Practical and Collaborative Settings

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When working in community-based settings, there is often a reluctance to engage in evaluation. I generally try to emphasize three main points at the beginning of collaborations.

Data is everywhere. There are many ways that we can understand what is happening in our communities. Sometimes, we put out surveys to ask people about their beliefs and attitudes. We can also access publicly available databases, like County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, seen in the image below. And still other times, we can ask people on the street about what is important to them.

From County Health Ranking and Roadmaps

There is no one “best” way to get at the truth. It is often best practice to use many different methods to understand your targeted issue’s various aspects. This is the heart of mixed-method evaluation. Further, there are different categories of data that we can collect. Inquiry data are things that we actively seek out, like surveys and interview. Observational data are things that we try to naturally observe, like public data repositories. Also, I’ve recently started using twitter’s API to monitor changes in keywords.

Finally, Reflection data is collected when we help stakeholders through the sense-making process. Some colleagues and I go more into detail in this paper.

Don’t be afraid of accountability. Many people find accountability scary. It can be embarrassing or frightening to find out what is going on in our communities. However, this understanding is critical so that all stakeholders know what is at stake when deciding how to address it.

Data leads to improvement. Data can (and in many cases should) be used for improvement. By understanding conditions, setting a new target, picking an intervention, and monitoring progress toward that target, we can make changes happen. Often time, data and evaluation can be an intervention in and of itself because it raises consciousness and awareness among stakeholders.

As a concluding tangent, so much of my recent works has been tied up in PubTrawlr, so connecting with people on the ground, as I’m doing with the New Jersey Health Initiative’s Small Communities’ Hyperlocal Data Collaboration, is super invigorating.

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