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Free Online Course Focuses on Cultivating Collaborative and Equitable Data Practices

Data for Social Impact, an initiative of the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, has launched a free online course for social sector professionals. While many courses develop technical data skills, this course—designed with, by, and for social sector leaders—supports organizations in cultivating equitable, collaborative data practices. Each module includes worksheets, resource lists, and tangible tools for participants, allowing them to bring the conversation back to their organizations.

The Data for Social Impact online course was reviewed by a team of social sector leaders who provided critical feedback on the content. As a contributor to, and user of, the curriculum, Adam Pearson of Peter & Paul Community Services in St. Louis recommends the course for organizations of all shapes and sizes. “Whether your organization is a small startup or a large organization with hundreds of employees spread out across the region, the insights gained from the curriculum can improve your data culture, business practices, strategic planning, and methods for engaging the community,” says Pearson.

The curriculum includes self-paced online modules covering six focus areas:

  • ASSESS where you are going and why,
  • CULTIVATE a collaborative data culture,
  • COLLABORATE with community data partners,
  • BUILD equitable data infrastructure,
  • ADVANCE equitable processes and outcomes, and
  • ENGAGE partners and translate findings into action.

Throughout the course, participants will learn from social sector colleagues about how they leverage data for social impact and resources they find helpful along the way. For example, the ASSESS module is focused on taking stock of your data strategy and planning. Resources featured include’s Data Maturity Assessment and resource library and the Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy (AISP) Toolkit for Centering Racial Equity Throughout Data Integration.

Bridget Blount of Baltimore’s Promise talks about the process of developing the AISP toolkit, and why it appeals to her as a practitioner. “I really enjoy the toolkit because oftentimes resources are really theoretical, and that’s great, but I’m practical,” she says. “I want to know, like what do you mean by this, how can I actually apply this?” Similarly, David Mascarina and Ginger Zielinskie of discuss how the Data Maturity Assessment can help social impact organizations jumpstart the process of assessing where they are going with data, identifying areas where they would like to grow, and accessing tangible resources that can point them toward solutions.

The ASSESS module also demonstrates how Operation Food Search (OFS), a St. Louis-based organization, has utilized these tools in developing its data strategy. “We collect data based on the programming that we’re doing, a lot of which is legacy programming. So, we don’t have a sophisticated approach that is collecting data, sharing it across the multiple departments of our organization, [and] synthesizing that then into programming that we consequently launch,” says Carlton Adams, Chief Operations Officer at OFS. “To me, that is a type of data strategy that we would aspire to, but we’re not quite there yet.”

For those interested in data sharing, the COLLABORATE module includes discussions about equitable data-sharing practices by social sector leaders. As Paul Sorenson of the St. Louis Regional Data Alliance notes: “No single program, organization, or structure can tackle critical social challenges on its own.” Instead, this requires “collaboration and stitching together of multiple different sectors and systems, and so working across these systems is essential.”

For Peter & Paul Community Services, this means sharing data across organizations to better serve unhoused neighbors, many of whom receive assistance from several organizations simultaneously. “Collaboration with data sharing becomes a cornerstone of what we’re doing,” says Pearson. The module provides examples, resources, and questions to consider when thinking about best practices for sharing data that centers on equity and impact.

For those considering how to mobilize data to create change, the ENGAGE module explores strategies for engaging diverse audiences with data and translating findings into action. Karishma Furtado, Director of Data and Research at Forward Through Ferguson, discusses strategies for using data as a tool to “catalyze and measure impact, to facilitate accountability, deepen understanding, and imagine what’s possible” through data storytelling. For Forward Through Ferguson, data is not an end in itself but a tool for storytelling, engagement, and action. “We try to think of our data work as a set of tools, and the report is not a static thing that lives on a website somewhere,” explains Furtado. “It’s really the starting point to a great deal of effort to engage people with the findings of that work.”

Equity is at the core of the data practices shared in the curriculum. For Amy Hawn Nelson, Director of Training and Technical Assistance for Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, this means putting data into context and building up organizations’ ability to engage in equitable, community-centered practices. “If you are looking to build capacity and understanding around issues of data access, data use, and how to ensure that data is used for social good rather than harm, then this content will be of interest,” she says.

The Data for Social Impact course is designed for a wide range of users, with no prior data experience required. Participants can go through each module in order or pick and choose topics that are most relevant to their work. Explore the course and jumpstart your data journey by clicking here.