Data and information are not the same thing. While data consists of raw numbers and quantitative results, information comes from analyzing such data to look for trends, patterns, and evidence of impact. By utilizing information, your program can better address its goals.
THE POWER OF BIG DATA
If you work in social, health, or government services, chances are you have heard the phrase, the power of big data. But what exactly does it mean? And how can you incorporate it into your program?
As technology continues to advance, the push for organizations to utilize big data has grown stronger. Put simply, data is raw, unorganized facts about the inputs and outputs of a program or initiative1. For food security programs, data might include the number of meals provided or the cost of each perishable food item; for a health care service, data may be more focused on how often a patient seeks emergency care or how many antibiotics are distributed.
While data has been traditionally costly to gather, advances in technology like smartphones and case management software make it easier than ever for social programs to accrue relevant data. Our ClientTrack™ platform, for example, makes data entry simple and streamlined, so stakeholders can quickly access program data all from one place in a matter of seconds. These features are important because they can help overcome barriers to using big data and make it more accessible for organizations to implement informed decisions.
GLEANING INFORMATION FROM DATA
However, data alone does not equate to power; the transformation of data into information is when it becomes important2. Information is processed data3, meaning that the raw numbers have been analyzed and can be presented in a coherent and purposeful way. For a non-profit organization focused on refugee resettlement, their data might include the number of refugees able to find stable work whereas their information notifies that only the refugees in certain locations or with additional resources secured jobs. With information like this, the refugee organization can then make informed decisions about how to modify their program to better help those in need.
Obtaining the right information is not an easy task. While organizations in the for-profit world typically have straightforward metrics (like revenue and expenditures), non-profits generally have more qualitative objectives4. How do you quantify an individual’s quality of life, improved living conditions, or community togetherness? Even when programs successfully measure these variables, it can still be difficult to compare the data to other programs or initiatives who have measured the same outcome differently; this is when information becomes crucial by providing a bridge to comparison.
Becoming a data- and information-driven organization is not as daunting as it may sound. To begin, three simple questions should guide your data collection:
1) How much did we spend?
2) How much did we do?
3) How much did it matter?
Using these questions as a framework will help organizations quickly identify the outcomes relating to their objectives and offer a great structure to begin seeking out information from the results.
As your organization begins seeking out data, it is important to establish goals on how you plan to utilize it. Consider these four ideas (gathered from a recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts5) on how to turn your data into actionable, relevant information by using data to:
This is usually the first place to begin when working with data and information. Looking at inputs and outputs will quickly inform you whether your program is effectively accomplishing its mission. Notably, without a quantitative measure of outcomes, it is nearly impossible for a program to confidently claim effectiveness.
Improve Service Delivery
Is your service reaching the people it is designed for? Are your products getting out on time? With the help of data and information, programs can see where the biggest gaps are in service delivery. Just as Google Maps knows when and where traffic jams occur, data can alert your organization when and where service delivery meets obstacles.
Manage Existing Resources
When resources and allocations are stored in one place, it becomes easier to manage. Data can help you see exactly where your resources are going, how much is left, and how much you need to serve all the people you’re intending to.
Ask for More Funding
This is where data can become a tool not just for understanding your program, but for bolstering it. By gathering information on the efficacy of your program, organizations can make the case for what additional good will come from more funding. If you can show what your initiative can do with $50,000, then it becomes easier to show what you can do with $100,000, and so on.
Ultimately, the work of using data and information becomes significantly easier when utilizing software designed for this process. Consider the Houston YMCA Office for Refugees—through ClientTrack™, this organization successfully converted over 240 individual data spreadsheets into a single, streamlined case management system (6). From there, they were able to spend more time focusing on the needs of their program and using the information from their data to make informed decisions.
As social programs, non-profits, and government services continue to shift to a data-driven mindset, they will continue to reap the benefits from the power of big data. Understanding the difference between data and information—then using it to your advantage—can bring both quantitative and qualitative results to your program.