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Data and the social sector: We are all “data people”

Most of us who have worked in the social sector have interacted with data in some facet of our jobs. Whether applying for grants, evaluating programs, tracking client outcomes,  drafting annual reports, or designing dashboards, our effectiveness hinges in part on how well we use data.

I still recall in my past work being taken aback when a coworker referred to me as the “data person” in a staff meeting. I certainly did not identify as such, nor did my title make this connection.  Since we lacked the funding to hire an actual data analyst, perhaps I had come to fill this role by default.

This led me to ask: what counts as a “data person?” And what kinds of data skills are most important for advancing an organization’s mission and increasing its impact?

I still think about these questions in my current work as Program Coordinator for the Social Policy Institute. Such questions are at the center of our Data Science for Social Impact initiative, where we are working to develop a set of training and programming opportunities tailored to the data needs of social sector organizations in partnership with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, data.org, and the St. Louis Regional Data Alliance.

As part of this initiative, our team has the opportunity to speak with dozens of local and national social sector leaders about what it might look like to build capacity around data for social impact in St. Louis and why this work is important.

One insight we hear repeatedly is that building capacity around data is not just about learning technical skills or hiring “data people,” as important as those things are. Successful capacity building also relies on communicating across roles within an organization and learning how to talk about data from our different vantage points. Most people in a social sector organization interact with data. Even those who have little or no experience analyzing data can have a significant role to play in thinking strategically about leveraging it to increase impact.

This point was driven home in a recent conversation with Samantha Stangl, data analyst for the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. “Whether or not you think you are working with data, data is impacting you,” she pointed out. “Data is being collected that speaks to your job, that speaks to your caseload, or that speaks to your clients if you’re doing direct service.” As someone who has worked in a variety of social sector roles, Stangl emphasized that making an impact with data is not something that is limited to a particular title or skill set. “There are opportunities to use data thoughtfully and strategically, no matter what your role is.”

Whether or not you think you are working with data, data is
impacting you.

Samantha Stangl, data analyst for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office

The importance of thoughtful and strategic use of data was reiterated by Allie Chang Ray,  principal at Mutare Network and adjunct instructor at the Brown School. “By extracting, analyzing, visualizing, and managing data, insights emerge that might not be seen otherwise,” said Ray. “This is critical when our environments are constantly influenced by changing internal and external forces. When making decisions individually or part of a larger group, data is an asset that helps sift through all the factors to consider.”

Of course, while there are many opportunities to interact with data, data literacy varies widely across roles. Data people are paramount, but they can’t do it alone. Ted Floros, Public Health Coordinator for the St. Louis County Office of Strategy and Planning, noted the importance of translational skills for those in the role of data analyst (whether by title or by default). “You might be the most data-capable person in your organization,” said Floros. “So if you are advocating for something new, it typically means educating along the way.”

This might mean translating a new methodology or model into non-technical language, or even training coworkers in a new technique. Floros pointed out some of the drawbacks of leaving all of the data tasks in the hands of one person. “Are people able to check your work if you’re the only person with a skill? Does it create a bottleneck? You may have to find ways of mollifying those concerns when introducing a new tool.”

The common message among all of these conversations is that truly data-informed organizations build capacity across the organization—not just among “data people.” Because on some level, we are all data people. And when it comes to thinking about data, we all have a role to play.

Jenrose Fitzgerald is a Program Coordinator at the Social Policy Institute Washington University in St. Louis. Learn more about the Data Science for Social Impact initiative or contact jenrose@wustl.edu to join the conversation.