[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]We live in a world where data are increasingly available, in ever larger quantities, and are increasingly expected to form the basis for decisions as well as demonstrate impact to our funders and stakeholders. In this post, we explore data with high-risk populations to promote system-level change around data collection and analysis in the community benefit and school sectors. We can learn much from those working in high-risk contexts with populations of people at the core of distressed communities.
Professionals who serve high-risk populations (e.g. previously incarcerated youth and adults, teen parents, transient populations, etc.) face intense working conditions. A continuous challenge for many programs is to effectively collect data while meeting demanding work conditions. When working with high-risk youth, it is common that residences and phone numbers change, and transportation is a regular barrier. How, then, do programs collect data post program completion? How can we know anything about the impact of programs when we can’t track-down program alumni?
Programs for high-risk populations are an ideal context for testing dynamic data approaches and supporting effectiveness for all types of programs. This context offers a profound opportunity to inform what and how data approaches are used throughout community organizations and schools whether or not the populations are high-risk.
Data in the most challenging contexts highlight three lessons for all of us:
- Collaboration must lead data collection.
- Expand “who” qualifies as a data collector.
- Experiment with tactics.
Collaboration must lead data collection
When program participants or program alumni are shared across two or more programs/organizations, collaborate! Those programs that deliver similar or directly complimentary services can unite in their data collection efforts. With a singular data collection plan, multiple organizations can strategically collect data that serves all of the programs. Staff members from any one of those similar or complimentary programs who connects with program participants or alumni can strategically collect information appropriate to each program.
Expand “who” qualifies as a data collector
Program alumni are the best researchers to hire for data collection. Here are four arguments for hiring alumni researcher.
- Program staff and participants get to know one another through the course of programming. Staff can identify program participants who have the desire to train as researchers in addition to completing program curriculum.
- Program alumni directly benefit from data collection training. Alumni gain additional professional skills that serve to bolster marketability in any job sector. And, alumni gain temporary wages while serving as researchers.
- Data collection methodologies can be improved upon by alumni. Alumni researchers can inform data collection protocols, adding insightful components and strategies for execution in the community.
- Alumni researchers know the community well and can access places and spaces that “outsiders” cannot so easily access.
Experiment with tactics
Practical strategies for data collection can be effective and affordable for any size organization. Here are four tactics that are currently underway in the Central San Joaquin Valley.
- Host monthly free dinner or refreshment events that current program participants and alumni are invited to and know are an established and regularly held activity. When alumni attend the event, gather data formally or informally (with their consent, of course).
- Call program alumni weekly or monthly with incentives to share with them for a few minutes of their time. For example, a program in Fresno offers free diapers and/or children’s supplies to teen parents who are able to meet for follow-up sessions with caseworkers.
- Meet program alumni near their homes such as at a fast-food restaurant or a park. This brings the meeting into the community and away from your organization’s office, addressing transportation issues for the alumni.
- Frequent areas of town where program alumni are known to hang-out (with appropriate safety precautions). Keep needs assessment forms handy or a small notebook to jot down data points that alumni share (with their consent, of course).
The issues in our community are complex. The complexities make effective programming increasingly difficult to track. We must all accelerate the pace at which we refine data collection and collaborate to achieve our goals for community impact. We must create opportunities for quality data collection and analysis, with the same determination outlined in the missions of our community and school programs.