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St. Louis Social Sector Leaders Discuss Data Equity at STL DataFest 2024

What is the role of data in improving impact? And why is this a matter of equity? St. Louis social sector leaders addressed these questions in a panel discussion at STL DataFest 2024 titled Power in Numbers: How Data for Social Impact Cultivates Inclusive Growth on Friday, May 17. The panel was moderated by Simon Huang, Chief Technology Officer for the City of St. Louis, and explored how social sector organizations are harnessing data to promote equitable outcomes and advocate for change in the St. Louis region.

Power in Numbers panel at STL DataFest 2024

STL DataFest is a free and public event organized by the Transdisciplinary Institute in Applied Data Sciences (TRIADS) at Washington University in St. Louis. It is designed to bring together professionals from universities, government, businesses, and nonprofits who share a passion for using data to drive positive societal change. The Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth and Data for Social Impact (DSI) initiative at Washington University in St. Louis co-sponsored the event. In addition to the panel, DSI research assistants Gifty Aboagye-Mensah, Jude Miller, and Jenna Yang presented during an engaging poster session.

Three themes stood out in the Power in Numbers panel discussion:

1. Data is an important component in advancing equity across sectors.

Whether we work in economic development, health and human services, workforce development, financial inclusion, or any number of sectors, data is crucial in understanding who participates in various programs and how to improve them.

Eddie Mungai (Community Engagement Manager, MoCaFi) discussed the role of data in understanding the needs of people who are unbanked or underbanked, which is vital to addressing the racial wealth gap in St. Louis and beyond. Julian Nicks (CEO, LaunchCode) stressed the significance of data in understanding workforce development needs both from the learners that they support as well as the employers with whom they partner, with the ultimate goal of achieving equitable outcomes. Jenrose Fitzgerald (Program Manager, Data for Social Impact Initiative) underscored the importance of centering equity in data capacity-building for the social sector.

Adam Pearson (Director, Department of Human Services) highlighted the importance of data in informing governmental decisions as a funder of St. Louis service providers. “It really is what we do at DHS. We receive all of these inputs from different providers, and they’re doing fantastic work,” said Pearson. “We need to make sure we are understanding who we serve and what the outcomes are.”

2. Collaboration is critical when it comes to leveraging data for social impact.

Noting that panelists represented a range of perspectives from human services to research to financial services to workforce development, Huang asked how collaboration across organizations and sectors helps them move forward in their work. Mungai noted that MoCaFi has collaborated with researchers at the Social Policy Institute on strategies for collecting data from constituents who are unbanked or underbanked.

Julian Nicks (CEO, LaunchCode) highlighted the benefits of collaborating with university partners in order to collect and analyze data that was beyond the scope of their internal capacity. LaunchCode worked with Jason Jabbari (Co-Director, Social Policy Institute) to develop a survey to ask some of the questions they were interested in exploring in order to improve their programs. For example, LaunchCode was interested in not only impact for their learners, but also to compare those outcomes with those who didn’t get into the program. “We are able to leverage our skills and our capacity to answer those questions,” said Jabbari.

3. Data is vital in scaling up solutions and advocating for policy change.

In their respective government roles, Pearson and Huang both underscored the usefulness of data in scaling impact and advocating for change. Huang gave the example of the Economic Justice Index which the St. Louis Development Corporation is using to guide approximately $250 million in investment in the City of St. Louis.

Pearson highlighted the role of data in addressing housing challenges in the city and advocating for better policies:“We use the data from our partners to really tell the story about how our system functions and then how we can design a better system that works for more people,” said Pearson.

Scaling up is a key strategy in the research partnership between LaunchCode and the Social Policy Institute as well. Jabbari noted that survey data is important but also time-consuming, leading him to explore administrative data as a tool for scaling up the research on workforce development. A data partnership with Equifax allowed for merging earnings, credit, and employment data with LaunchCode’s program data. “What are outcomes like for learners of color? What are they like for women or nonbinary folks? These are some of the things we can do with larger administrative data,” he said.

Nicks underscored the importance of this work, and explained how this level of research highlights trends and supports advocating for change nationally as well as locally.

DSI research assistant Jenna Yang (far right) presents at the STL DataFest poster session.

All of these examples tie back to inclusive growth, or the idea that economic growth and development should benefit everyone. “Inclusive growth for me means as our economy grows and as our city grows, as we think about where we want to go long term, how do we make sure all the people that live in the region have an ability to take part in that growth as well,” said Nicks. Huang reinforced this sentiment with regard to his role at the city. “Mayor Jones has a bold vision to transform the City of St. Louis through a vibrant, just, and growing economy in which all people can thrive,” he said. “So that’s a definition for inclusive growth. Nobody is left behind.”

Achieving equitable outcomes is an ongoing process, and nobody has all of the answers. At minimum, it takes vision, commitment, collaboration, and advocacy. And as all of the panelists demonstrated, knowing how to leverage data to improve impact is an important piece of the puzzle.