For a lot of people entering into the murky world of data can seem like stepping into a jungle with no sight of the way out. You know you’ve always wanted to do it, wanted to be there but you just don’t know what you’re doing. Data is exactly like a jungle unless you know the paths, the routes and the way through. Some describe it as a mine field and in turn a lot of people get turned off by it, outsource it or hope someone else is going to come up with the numbers. For more than a decade now Government departments, foundations, business and industry have been on a constant push to try and embed data into every day life so that at least it has some form of meaning.
In the case of business and industry they have been using it for years to spot emerging trends, changes in consumer behaviour all in the bid to understand where and what the next big thing might be. From the most basic of count clickers standing outside the site of a proposed cafe to count the potential foot traffic to large supermarket chains analysing consumer spend based on product category.
In the world of social investment and sustainability there has also been a movement to try and understand what the impact of such grants or funding is. In some cases the not for profit sector has led and in others they have waited to be pushed or followed. And then there is Government – as something new comes along such as “data collection” and “sustainability” in come the consultants to build a framework that everyone else needs to comply with – and yet often the data is never used for any meaningful purpose. Therefore the impact is never achieved by understanding if something such as a program or initiative works. But the case to better utilise and understand what the data is telling us is fundamental. Back in 2001 I told the Global Knowledge Management Conference that data was always just one part of the puzzle. In fact, to make it meaningful you needed to ensure all three components of the information line was working. Data is the first step where you collect something for a reason or a purpose. This then translates into a form of information and knowledge is the power of how you then turn it into something meaningful – what is it telling us? Why? And for what purpose.
In New Zealand I recently attended a meeting of the Social Investment Agency who had bought organisations together to try and better understand what to do. There was no doubt Government departments and agencies had collected a mountain of data over many years. In return as Government outsourced programs of work and projects the expectation was the provider would collect data to better inform something – although its not always clear what the “something” is.
So lets take a look at a couple of examples of why data can be so important. As many people know I Chair an organization called Suicide Prevention Australia (that nations peak representative body) and every year the suicide data is released. Because the coronial process is very forensic in nature the data that can be taken from those national figures can better inform us around emerging trends, methods and means, socio economic and more. The reason this is so important is it gives organisations and Governments the ability to better target resources and develop new ones around emerging trends. In doing so the response (both preventative and postvention) can be more impactful. The same comes down to the evaluation of programs and ensuring we read the data to the point it tells us whether something is being effective and where improvements could be made in the system. All of this has a significant social outcome – to ensure as many Australians live long and healthy lives as possible. But; there is more. It gives us the ability to look at the socio and economic cost more and whether there are additional things that we could be doing that don’t always fit around the mental health arena.
In Indigenous Australia I am also heavily involved with Babana Aboriginal, a group established by a good friend of mine more than fifteen years ago, Mark Spinks. Mark also collects data in a more simplified way that enables him to provide evidence around the success of his programs. In the example before I talked about very complex and complicated forms of data collection – in the case of Babana I talk about the basics such as the number of attendees at an event, the number of people who are placed into employment, or provided housing or a food parcel. In fact that data might be simple but interpreted the right way it can also tell a significant story about the social challenges in a particular community and what might be done to address them.
In both cases Government departments and agencies also have the ability to take advantage of the data being collected to develop policy and also funding. But here is the challenge – very few organsiations understand why the data was being collected in the first place other than to tick a box around compliance or the requirements under a contract – and many not for profit agencies or program providers don’t have the experience or funded to the point where data becomes usable. In fact some commentators like to say that less money is reaching the intended recipient of funding because more and more is being spent on administration – which, in many cases, is simply not true.
The harsh reality is the need for Government to acquire the data knowledge skills it needs to better develop contracted outcomes and even get to the point of investing more in things like the Social Investment Agency – both to set a data framework for procurement of social services in particular and also review the mountain of data we already have. In doing so we can all push towards the change we all want through better analysis and interpretation of data – change such as reducing suicide, understanding the better targeting of mental health services, addictions, domestic violence, truancy, school drop out rates and much, much more.
Its time we stopped collecting for the sake of collecting and began doing something much more meaningful.
Matthew Tukaki is the Chair of Suicide Prevention Australia and formerly Chair of Deakin University CSaRO and Australian Representative to the United Nations Global Compact.
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