Why I Love Data

By Rich Harwood Not long ago I wrote a piece entitled, “An Urgent Warning about Impact,” in which I  cautioned that focusing too much on notions of “impact” can make us lose sight of our most precious mission: to help people transform their lives and build stronger communities.

That brought many positive reactions, but some delightfully negative ones too. Some people questioned if I were “anti-data,” against the use of metrics to set goals, and resistant to measuring the impact of efforts to combat social ills. Today I wish to set the record straight.

Let me say as clearly as I can: I am for the use of data, I am for setting goals, and I am for measuring impact. Phew! Now that I have said that, I want to explain my thinking.

Data – and the many new analyses and uses of it – enable us to better understand what is happening in communities and the larger society. For instance, data helps us figure out the hotspots of crime in a community, the children who are at greatest risk of falling through the cracks, and where toxic waste sites exist in relationship to population centers. These and countless other examples open a window for us to see more clearly what we need to pay attention to.

Efforts to set metrics so that we know what we want to accomplish makes imminent sense. Without knowing where we are going, it is hard to know if we have ever arrived. And measuring impact allows us to know “what works.” It’s possible to determine which interventions are successful and which aren’t. Why would we not want to know this? So, yes, let’s use data, let’s set goals, and let’s measure impact so we can figure out how best to deploy limited resources.

But this is my plea: Let’s also be discerning as we pursue this path.

Just recently, the Collective Impact Forum (an initiative of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and FSG) published an article I wrote, “Putting Community in Collective Impact.” In it, I make the case that understanding and strengthening a community’s civic culture is as important to collective efforts as using data, metrics and measuring outcomes. After all, civic culture is the container in which all change in communities occurs. A weak civic culture will undermine the best of intentions and the most rigorous of analyses and plans.

For change to happen, trust and community ownership must form, people need to engage with one another, and we need to create the right underlying conditions and capacities for change to take root and spread. It takes being aware of the readiness and appetite for change among leaders, groups and everyday people.

My urgent warning about impact is that it can cast a spell over us, where we become so consumed with data, metrics and measuring outcomes that we take our eye off of the community itself. We may fail to see people – and our common humanity – involved in this common enterprise we call community. We may forget that simply because we know “what works” does not mean that we know “how things work” – that is, how change comes about and evolves in communities.

After all, communities are organic systems. We cannot control or simply impose solutions on them. What’s more, simply because we set a shared destination does not mean that our pre-planned route is either the right one or even a good one. Changes in communities emerge over time and we must spend as much time re-calibrating our efforts as we do planning them.

So, by all means, let’s use data, let’s set goals, and let’s figure out what works. And at the same time, let’s also re-commit ourselves to be discerning in how we pursue this path.