Overcoming Barriers to Using Data: Insights from Data Driven Detroit

Posted by Erica Raleigh on
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Last month, I participated in a panel entitled “Data as a Tool for Systems Change” as part of Living Cities’ Data Day for The Integration Initiative sites. During this panel, I discussed the work of my organization, Data Driven Detroit (D3), and our efforts to provide accessible, high-quality information and analysis to drive informed decision-making throughout the Detroit area.


Detroit’s effort, the Woodward Corridor Initiative (WCI), focuses on using Midtown Detroit’s multiple anchor institutions to drive reinvestment in the city; create a denser and more vibrant area to attract businesses, residents, and talent; generate greater benefits for area residents; and create systems change in regional land use and local regulatory policies.

From D3’s vantage point, data can support all WCI strategies, as well as the entire systems change theory. Despite the important role data can play in this work, there are many challenges to using data in Detroit, including:

Data-free decision-making – Choices about policy, strategy, or other actions are made without critical examination of evidence of problems.
Data duplication – Critical data are stored and edited by different actors who are not transparent about methodologies and do not share the data.
Data discomfort – Data can be intimidating and overwhelming to the average stakeholder.


While these challenges can inhibit the goals of WCI strategies, D3 believes that we can overcome these obstacles through greater transparency and sharing of data.

Ending data-free decision-making

Decisions made without close examination of relevant data can lead to working on problems that don’t exist, or working on problems that do exist but won’t be solved through the proposed solutions. When data are made widely available in a useful format, there is greater opportunity for everyone to use data when making decisions. We can, and should, use data before a program begins: to identify what the problem is, the extent of that problem, who or what is most impacted by it, and then devise a data-driven strategy for addressing the problem.


By making data more transparent and more widely accessible, we enable a variety of people and programs to bring their own resources to bear on the problems we face. With a diversity of perspectives at the table, we stand a greater chance of solving complex problems that cut across all professions and subject areas. Working from the same set of facts, we can identify, articulate, share, and take ownership over exactly what the issues are. Sharing data and pursuing shared outcomes can drive “collective impact” – a collaborative approach across sectors that seeks to drive agreed upon and measurable change. By taking shared ownership of the challenges, we also take on shared ownership and accountability for making change.

Avoiding data duplication


Data duplication stems from a lack of transparency around the methodology for data production, maintenance, and storage. As time progresses, the differing methodologies lead to significant discrepancies in the quality and contents of data, and natural human bias leads each to strongly believe their own methods are the best. The same information, transparently displayed and described, combined with an opportunity for everyone to weigh in on methodology, vet the data, and utilize it, can benefit the entire community. With one trusted source, each silo can spend less time creating and maintaining data, and more time utilizing it to make change.


Alleviating data discomfort

Discomfort with understanding and analyzing data is a significant barrier to its use. A critical element of increasing transparency and accessibility to encourage shared ownership, accountability, and data-driven decision-making, is training. Data can be overwhelming, confusing, or boring to many people. Through the convening of community workshops, where attendees are encouraged to bring real-world questions or problems, and moderators bring a curriculum that is engaging and practical, we will arm more people with data necessary to make community change.

D3 is working to overcome these challenges by making connections among the disparate initiatives in the city, with the aim of driving better coordination and deeper, more sustainable impact. D3 is building a comprehensive data system that includes statewide, regional, and neighborhood level indicators, both current and historical. Our intention is to improve the quality of life in distressed neighborhoods by ensuring that all decision-makers have access to the same high-quality data and essential and unbiased information is used by all. D3 will promote thoughtful community building and effective policy making by providing our leaders and the public with a mutual understanding of the issues facing the region. By helping stakeholders throughout the city overcome the challenges outlined above, we believe we can advance the work of WCI and get closer to lasting systems change in Detroit.

Erica Raleigh is Assistant Director of Projects for Data Driven Detroit