Using data to achieve collective impact continues to be a challenge for the Living Cities Collective Impact team.

The Collective Impact team at Living Cities is serious about learning in public. We set aside time intentionally every month–sometimes multiple times a month–to reflect on what’s happening in our collective impact portfolio and figure out how we can do our work better. This is the second blog in a periodic series to share with you the insights, connections, and feedback that surface in these sessions. Please share your reflections in the comments so we can strengthen each other’s work!

Updates

The use of data is a huge challenge in collective impact. We’ve heard the call for greater support on data from across our portfolio: our partners in San Francisco and Seattle/King County are working to increase the capacity of their communities to track, manage and use data to inform their decision making; the Network for Economic Opportunity in New Orleans is struggling to connect data systems from various workforce development providers; and the members of the Prepare Learning Circle are learning that the data they need do not exist in a way that enables them to effectively track the recommended outcome of the cohort.

These challenges span a wide range of issues, from capacity needs to legality issues to data accessibility barriers. We launched the Data and Collective Impact project earlier this month as one way to support leaders struggling to effectively use data. If you have your own data challenges, we encourage you to sign up to access free tools and resources to help you do your work better. And because of our commitment to learning and sharing in public, we wanted to share these additional insights to help you better manage and use data for collective impact.

Cross-Cutting Insights

Compliance data vs. Strategic data: One big challenge our sites have seen with their work to access data is helping partners make the shift from “data for compliance” to “data for strategy.” Many partners in collective impact collect and use data for compliance purposes only. In the public sector, these data are used for legal compliance; in the nonprofit sector they are used to fulfill grant requirements.

“Think about the difference between data that shows whether or not a school meets attendance requirements, versus data on the reasons why students are absent from class…”

But shifting from a compliance mindset to one of strategy can help collective impact initiatives use data as a forcing mechanism for behavior change. Using data to think strategically about what an initiative needs to accomplish will help show partners how they fit into a strategic vision, and how they don’t. Compliance data, on the other hand, tend to be focused on the past and are not very robust. Think about the difference between data that shows whether or not a school meets attendance requirements, versus data on the reasons why students are absent from class, and which are absent most frequently.

Communities can accelerate use of data with increased capacity: We support the Working Cities Challenge, which is a cohort of collective impact initiatives in small cities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Many of these smaller cities have data challenges similar to the larger cities we work with: data systems don’t link with each other; people aren’t willinging to share their data; the needed data just do not exist. And, on top of everything else, a lot of these smaller cities haven’t had the investment in data infrastructure larger cities have had.

“We’ve seen that an increase in capacity in the form of a data manager can help accelerate the use and management of data.”

But, we’ve seen that an increase in capacity in the form of a data manager can help accelerate the use and management of data. This data manager is an individual with experience managing data flow for a network or partnership. By investing in someone to start collecting and analyzing data, no matter how imperfect those data are, partners start seeing the value of data and get comfortable with using it differently. Because of their smaller size, once the data, capacity and leadership are in place, the use of data in a smaller city tends to be more manageable.

Don’t be afraid of primary data collection: The members of the Prepare Learning Circle are struggling with one of the biggest issues in using data for collective impact–accessing and using longitudinal workforce data. Data on workforce outcomes is hard to access and even harder to link up with other data sets.

“When the data doesn’t exist, you shouldn’t be afraid to go out and survey people to get the data you need to see if a program is actually making an improvement in the overall population.”

One way to get around this if you are a workforce-focused collective impact initiative is to use programmatic data as a proxy for outcome data. This is what most members of the Prepare Learning Circle are doing. But there’s another way: collecting the data yourself. When the data doesn’t exist, you shouldn’t be afraid to go out and survey people to get the data you need to see if a program is actually making an improvement in the overall population. There’s a cost associated with this, of course, but sometimes it’s the only way to get the data you need.

Next Steps

The discussion of all of this work around data led us to a conversation about how to prioritize the support of our partners around data challenges. There’s obviously a lot we could do, but we need to make sure we’re supporting them in the best way we can.

As we prioritize, we’ll share what we learn with you to help you do your work better. Sign up for our Data and Collective Impact project to receive these updates!

The Collective Impact Cluster is: Tynesia Boyea-Robinson, Brittany DeBarros, JaNay Queen, Jeff Raderstrong, Joan Springs, and Tracey Turner.