Avoiding the pitfalls of data collection

The typical social sector organization collects rows upon rows of data on program participants through in-take forms, attendance sheets and event mailers. This information is usually stored as a paper document or maybe even uploaded into a spreadsheet. Too often, once the information is entered and stored it’s rarely ever looked at again. The time and resources dedicated to data collection are futile unless the organization utilizes that information to inform their practice, and in the best possible scenario, drive evidence-based decision-making.

If your organization wants to reap the benefits of the data collected, follow these simple tips for data management:

Collect data that is directly relevant to your programmatic and organizational needs. You don’t need everything under the sun to understand your programs, just what is relevant to your field of work. Limit your data collection to two types of critical data: demographic and   programmatic data.

  • Demographic data tells you background information about your participants, such as their age, gender, race/ethnicity or family income level. This data allows you to better understand and explain who attends your programs.
  • Programmatic data details program enrollment, frequency and dosage. Program enrollment is self-explanatory, telling us what a person attended. Frequency defines how many times (days) that person attended a program, while dosage defines the amount of time (typically in hours) a person has attended a program.

Determine how you will store the data before you begin to collect it.

Once you know what you want to collect, consider in what form you wish to store it. The way data are stored will often determine if, and how, you are able to analyze it. If your documents are handwritten, then you will need to upload the data into a program, such as Microsoft Excel or Access before you can organize it properly, or do basic analysis or reporting.

There are several easy and cost effective ways that data can be analyzed.

  • Excel is free and if used properly, you can view data in many ways to gain a deeper understanding of your programs.
  • A pivot table and pivot chart with a few slicers will create a highly effective data dashboard. CCE uses a similar system to monitor the demographic and at-risk indicators of more than 2,000 students receiving interventions through The School Zone.

Determine how the collection and analysis of the data will inform your decision making.

Now that you have all this data, consider how it can inform your programming.

  • What programs are participants attending the most?
  • How does the frequency and dosage affect a program’s effectiveness?
  • Based on your demographic data, should you be providing different types of programs, or possibly more programs for a specific demographic?

Thinking about data as an informative tool, rather than an administrative burden, will open up a wealth of knowledge that will help improve the way you serve your community.

Written by Scott Smith, Director of Research and Data Management, CCE


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