Research & Insights / Training for your Datathon: Experts Share Best Practices to improve Data Culture

Training for your Datathon: Experts Share Best Practices to improve Data Culture

Derek Lin

EdVestors recently hosted the Youth Arts Impact Network for a Datathon. The Youth Arts Impact Network is a peer learning network composed of over seventy-five arts organizations that convene regularly to share best practices in data evaluation, organizational development, and communication efforts. At the Datathon, a panel of data experts shared their approaches to data collection, data analysis, and communicating data. Participants then had the opportunity to work with data sets using strategies and tips they just learned. The event was inspired by an annual Arts Datathon held in Los Angeles that uses data to engage the community and learn more about arts access and equity.

Data for What?

While data collection is routine, it is not always handled systematically. At times it can feel data is merely being collected because it seems like a good thing to do. Without a plan in mind – without asking “to what end?” – the impact of the data itself is limited.

Data is leveraged as a conversation starter to illustrate narratives that communicate impact between organizations, communities served, practitioners, and funders.

Data can be critical for informing decisions at every level within an organization and is used to bridge mission and goals with impact and results. In order to do that, there are a few questions that should be raised in advance: What type of data is needed? Why is the data needed? Who is the data for? With these questions in mind, participants heard from three data experts who delivered TED-style talks addressing key issues and unique approaches.

Data Collection Without Regrets

Steve Backman, a Strategic Consultant and principal at Database Designs, shared his Top Five Life Lessons in Collecting and Using Data:

  • Collect data that has meaning for the practitioners. See what information staff closest to the field are already collecting, and ask what is most important to those working on the front-line. Heaps of data are hidden in plain sight.
  • Don’t tell yourself you will make decisions based on data you can’t collect. For organizations that serve youth, data collection often tapers when young people exit the program. Some of the richest data with the greatest impact is produced after the program is completed. Plan a way to collect and measure post-program effects.
  • Be data informed, not data driven. Do not collect data for data’s sake. Ill-informed data can lead to poor decision-making. As an organization, come together to design questions, create data collection methods, and formulate a strategy for its application.
  • Work on your data culture. Is there truly staff buy-in? Does your organization share data internally? Have confidence in your data so you can highlight it.
  • Summarize the data and tell a story. The data collected are the building blocks of an organization. Social change is put in perspective when you show measurable impact.

Data Culture Project

Rahul Bhargava, researcher and technologist at MIT Center for Civic Media, described his ongoing Data Culture Project revolving around, a portfolio of online web apps that help users manipulate data to tell stories in creative ways. He explained that while data is normally used to improve efficiency and share impact, the Data Culture Project focuses on bringing people together. Using art as a platform to create a visualization of data not only brings the data to life but engages people in a way that makes the data relatable.

Understanding that data looks different for each organization, the approach of producing a representation of data allows every organization to illustrate what is most important to them, their youth, and the community around them. For example, Rahul has worked with organizations to create Data Murals to share their stories.

Portraying, Not Proving

Dennie Palmer Wolf, principal at WolfBrown, discussed her work with The Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall, which examined collaboration between parents and musicians to create lullabies, that ultimately examined the lullabies’ impact on children.

Dennie underscored the importance of portraying data in the most natural, digestible way as a means to highlight nuanced data that might have been swept away. She highlighted the value of data visualization in allowing for a wider audience to understand what your data is and why it is important.

The Finish Line

Following the presentations, each speaker facilitated workshops that allowed participants to work with raw program data from three Youth Arts Impact Network organizations. In small groups, participants collaboratively created data visualizations.

As with most Youth Arts Impact Network workshops, the Datathon concluded with sharing out of individual takeaways from the day. The group echoed the importance of involving more staff in planning how to collect and use the data and of using open-ended questions that allow for richer data including unexpected outcomes and impacts. Attendees felt more equipped to tackle data projects with the knowledge of new and free data analysis tools. Above all, there was broad agreement that youth should be involved in data collection and evaluation processes because, in the end, the goal is to better serve them.

Derek Lin is the Communications and Program Coordinator at EdVestors.