Data is Only Useful When it’s Used


By Jesh Harbaugh, Assistant Director of Business Intelligence
Development, Evaluation, and Strategic Initiatives (DESI)
SENECA FAMILY OF AGENCIES

This is the first post of a 3 part series

In the helping professions, few words elicit such strong and varied reactions as “data.”  In our culture of evidence-informed treatment, having strong outcome data to support your organization’s claims is essential, and there is immense value in having high-quality information to guide your decision-making.  But let’s be honest—there’s another perspective on the data revolution which is more focused on the drawbacks of “big data” than the benefits.

In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that many of our colleagues may not be particularly inclined towards data or think it’s very useful at all.  Their experience with data may primarily be one of frustration or indifference, based on their experience tracking, reporting, and being evaluated on what appear to be arbitrary metrics by an outside body with little direct experience or understanding of the client or family they might be meeting with each week.

I submit that both positions are valid and accurate.  Data on its own has no inherent value; a collection of numbers, regardless of how enlightening the information contained within it might be, means nothing unless the right person consumes that data.  Only at that point does the data become a valuable resource that can be used to improve performance and the quality of care.

This reality highlights the importance of the tools you use to analyze, present, and share your data.  If you want people to gain insights from your data, it’s not only important that the analysis (and data itself) be meaningful, but that it be easily accessible and presented in an intuitive way that a non-data-oriented person can make sense of.  We have to be practical and realistic in considering how people access and experience data—even sending an Excel spreadsheet as an email attachment (expecting the recipient to open the file and look at the contents) will prove too high of a barrier for many.

As stewards of data and information, we have a responsibility to meet people where they are at and present high-quality analyses in ways that facilitate a meaningful exploration of information.  The first important step is to know your users and understand what prevents them from engaging with data effectively.  Then, you can consider the best approach to overcoming these obstacles and determine what platform(s) best suits your needs.

No single approach is perfect, but interactive, web-based reports address many of the obstacles that were, until recently, very difficult to overcome for non-profit and helping organizations.  They are easily accessible from any connected device, offer colorful, engaging visual representations of data, and are flexible and responsive to user input—providing an ideal vehicle for sharing and facilitating engagement with data.  Once you have your data in a place where it’s most likely to be used, you’re well on your way to making effective use of it!

In the next post of this series, I’ll explore the value of interactive reports and share key considerations to take into account when designing them.

For more information on this post and the work being done at Seneca, email Jesh Harbaugh at jesh_harbaugh@senecacenter.org

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