WHAT’S DATA GOT TO DO WITH IT? Written by Marian Schwager

I am opening up this discussion with a reference showing my age; my title is a take on an old classic by an old classic- Tina Turner’s mournful “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” For those of you who were waddling around in diapers while she was up on the stage strutting her remarkable stuff, the theme of the song has to do with cynicism and disappointment in romance. The mourn is that some folks are in it for love and some folks, well, just are not. Same can be said of folks who manage human service programs and want to have studies, reports, charts, graphs, and well, lots of data. Some are in it because they actually want to know what is going on and some you might already guess are not in it for good management reasons. They think it looks good. You may be looking at this blog for guidance because you are looking for help navigating within a management environment that might have folks in it exemplifying some of both, and you are not sure how to handle data needs when you are not a professional researcher. So, we will begin with some optimism and assume you want to be here because you are looking to do good work and want help in accomplishing that. There is still hope for you. For those with some hope but a healthy dose of cynicism, you might want to check out blogs run by a colleague of mine, John Rodat called “Public Symbols”. According to www.bizjournals.com:

Rodat’s previous positions included director of the Committee on Health Insurance of the state Council on Health Care Finance, and executive deputy director of the state Department of Health Office of Health Systems Management. He also served as senior legislative budget analyst to the state Assembly Ways and Means Committee and as a budget examiner for the state Division of Budget.

John Rodat worked behind the scenes as Albany County Director of Management and Budget. You may watch a video of Mr. Rodat lecturing at The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government Public Policy Research Arm of the State University of New York by clicking here. You may also listen to John Rodat’s lecture on Ideas for Generating and Sustaining Finance for Health Coverage Initiatives in New York State by clicking here. He has spent a long and distinguished career trying to get elected officials and government leaders to make decisions based on facts, and despite the desperate title of his blog, still keep on slogging. I am assuming that you are not an old “data warrior”, but are new to the quest of developing good information. Ultimately we do it because we want others to use it to create positive change. Rest assured, you are in the right place. You do not need any guidance from us on how to create real negative change; that happens on its own.

So, welcome to a site that will provide you with ongoing tips and pointers on how to make data useful and used. You are able to use this site to

1) communicate with our faculty

2) communicate with others in your class

3) sign up for more information

4) participate in community discussions

5) all of the above

This introductory entry will be a summary of information presented at one of our learning communities in November 2011. The theme is how to know what data you need and how to plan for getting it. Subsequent entries will address topics not covered at that time- how to persevere in data gathering, how to write up your findings so people can understand them, and how to market your work so that it actually gets used.

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT DATA YOU WILL NEED?

Information is all around us and although we do not always remember this, data is not as obscure or difficult to collect as we think. When we get up in the morning, many of us access data from the moment we rise- we check the alarm clock to determine the time we got up, we access weather information, we determine if the coffee pot is plugged in or not. It is almost impossible to not be bombarded with data in our daily lives. It is also true of our work lives. First step is to relax, take a deep breath, and determine what you are trying to learn through your project. It sounds pretty basic, but the first key to research is to ask a question that is actually relevant to the problem you are trying to solve. The second is to ask it in such a way that the answer is obtainable. Neither step one nor steps two are easy, and many people who are professional researchers have come aground on either or both. Take time and rigor to get the research question right.

Once you have done that, you need to evaluate the types of information which might be useful to you in answering your question. There are three filters which help the most.

IS THE DATA IMPORTANT?

Many cooks subscribe to a school of thought for soup making where adding more ingredients can only improve the product. Other cooks are minimalists arguing that only a few key flavors make the most of the offering. In data gathering, you will be overwhelmed with choices of what to ask for and try to collect. Most researchers are of the “massive minestrone” school of data collection- why ask only a dozen questions when 60 or 70 will do nicely and give us so much more to explore for the next 20 years? I have been doing this for a long time and I have yet to encounter a lengthy questionnaire that does not start to gather dust almost immediately. Let us think about the example of waking up each morning and looking at the clock. For many people, the most important piece of information is the time of day. Tangential information might be contained such as the seconds passing by or the time of day it is in another country (say, for some reason you are monitoring time zones in outposts throughout the world, just for the heck of it!). Most folks would be content with whether or not they knew that it was 7:05 am and they had gotten up in time to get dressed and get to work. Keep this image in your mind. You need to know that you have not overslept. There are lots of data that can be associated with this one simple example, but hopefully you have gotten the point; be rigorous and limit yourself to only the most important pieces of information.

IS THIS DATA I CAN OBTAIN?

I sit on an Institutional Review Board for a large state agency, and we are “gatekeepers” for massive data bases that go back hundreds of years. Our role as board members is to insure that any proposed human subject research is not going to create unnecessary risks, but in the course of our deliberations we frequently have to scratch our heads when we read proposals from researchers who have not done their homework. They ask for information which does not exist, or data we cannot release to them. Sometimes the data that you need is right under your noses- interviews with colleagues and clients, reviews of records normally kept, observations of events as they transpire. Not all of your efforts at data collection need to be easy but always first try to “pick the low hanging fruit.”

HOW DO I GO ABOUT GATHERING THE DATA I NEED?

If you have made a decision that you know what pieces are most important, and that you know which of these pieces are readily available and which are not, the next step is to set up a data collection plan and time frame. Match the pieces of your “puzzle” with the data that you want, and list out time frames for when you can get the data. Start with something that is “easy” like organizing a chronology of events to explain what has happened with what you are studying (for example, if you were studying the outcomes of a political candidate running for nomination you could chart out when they announced their candidacy, what primaries they ran in, when they debated, and the like). You may want to develop and market that work product soon in the project. If it is something “hard” like conducting on-site interviews with key informants, you will need to schedule both your own time and the time of those whom you want to meet, and assume that you may have unanticipated “bumps” in your schedule. You may also have delays associated with getting appropriate permissions to collect the data that you need (like going through an Institutional Review Board). Although some data collection work plans can become very elaborate, it is worth your time and effort to select the TOP FIVE pieces of information that you need and organize “to do” lists around those. Everything else will then fall into place. For more information about setting up a data collection plan, please click here for further guidance and to be directed to SAMHSA, an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Copyright 2012 | The Institute for Community Research and Training | The College of Saint Rose

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