Using Data to Drive Change: A Basic Primer

Posted by Tracey Ross on

Management gurus have long said that you get what you measure. When Living Cities focused on building affordable housing, we counted units and loans and that was that. Now, as we embrace the importance of complex, cross-issue work and systems change, we have the challenge of finding new metrics and using data in new ways. Currently, we’re grappling with how to move beyond evaluating our programmatic work, and determining the impact we’re having as an organization. This means bringing together data from many different places in order to reflect on our work, remain nimble, and correct course where need be.

And we’re learning this isn’t easy to do. Using data to understand your environment, what role you have played in shaping it, and how you can do better is not an exact science. From the beginning of The Integration Initiative, each of the five sites – Baltimore,Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, and the Twin Cities – was required to use data to maximize their results. As the sites continue to work with their data partners on tracking their progress, we have recognized the need to advance the conversation around using data. As a result, we planned a series of sessions for the sites to learn more about data, and developed a basic primer for understanding how to use information in more strategic ways

Click here to read Using Data to Drive Change: A Basic Primer

As our primer outlines, we tend to think that data comes in the form of numbers and spreadsheets, but data includes everything from “the numbers” to anecdotal evidence. Simply put, data is information from which knowledge is derived. While quantitative data is often thought of as the most reliable form of information, qualitative data allows you to develop the story further, and get a more personal understanding of how the numbers play out in real life.

In practice, however, data has often been used with programs for punitive purposes – sometimes resulting in canceling a project or ending funding. As a result, programs often hesitate to incorporate data into their work because it can leave them exposed and
vulnerable. Contrary to these beliefs, data is an opportunity for navigating complex problems, as outlined by the following key benefits:

Deepens knowledge:
Data creates a shared starting point and better understanding of
the problems you are addressing and previously tested solutions.

Data can surprise you:
We may think we know how the world is working, but data can reveal
a markedly different picture, and change any preconceived notions about the
problem you are addressing or possible solutions.

Surfaces difficult conversations: When addressing problems that involve sensitive and complex issues, data helps anchor the discussion in what is occurring and what
can be done, rather than talking around the problem or focusing on blame.

Despite these benefits, we have seen through our own experience and work with others, how easy it is to default to using data in simpler, less strategic ways. Some of the most common challenges in using data arise due to our tendency to:

Collect the data we want, not the data we need: All data are constructed –
even “hard” numbers – because our biases affect the type of data we seek out.
As a result, we often look for data that reinforces the work we’re doing,
rather than data that challenges us.

Get stuck in the past:
It is much easier to collect data on past performance than it is
to organize and analyze these results to guide future work.

Focus solely on programs:
In doing systems change work, organizations tend to track programs,
rather than how programs are contributing to meeting systems change goals.

Given the common mistakes to using data, we developed the simple framework below to outline the major functions that data can serve to help organizations recognize how data can be used more strategically:



Generating a fact base enables organizations to foster a culture of curiosity, create opportunities for learning, and begin narrowing the focus of their work. Data also creates
accountability by identifying the key factors that contribute to a problem, and holding initiative’s responsible for addressing them. In addition, data can reveal how different populations are affected by problems and proposed solutions, holding an initiative accountable for addressing those disparities. Data can also help organizations generate hypotheses for how to improve the conditions they are seeing and guide their work.

Today, more data is available than ever before. As we navigate this data rich environment, we will continue to build on this foundation for thinking through data, and hope this information helps reveal some of the challenges and opportunities data presents. By understanding these opportunities, we believe organizations can collect and utilize information in more strategic ways in order to advance their goals.