5 Takeaways from “All About Data;” NCAN Launches Data Toolkit

May 11, 2016

By Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst 

It has been a busy and fruitful couple of months for NCAN members and partners who like digging into numbers. In March and April, NCAN held three “All About Data” Spring Training sessions in Santa Ana, California; Washington, DC; and Austin, Texas. These sessions all featured Dr. Chrissy Tillery, director of evaluation for the National Council on Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP), as well as other partners doing great work with data. Their presentations offered attendees great insights on how to improve program performance and scale program capacity through data.

Beyond Spring Training, NCAN also released a Data and Evaluation Toolkit that is full of resources for programs at all levels of data sophistication. The toolkit will be gradually expanded as new white papers and resources are produced or collected. Many of its resources are for NCAN members only, which represents a great addition to the already lengthy list of benefits of membership.

Given all of the new professional development around data and evaluation in the past two months, here are five key takeaways you should think about and one great resource of which you should take advantage: 

  1. Wherever you are, you’ve got company. NCAN member organizations are at various degrees of sophistication with incorporating data into their program activities. The good news is, whether you’re just starting or you’re fairly far along, there are other programs right there with you. Look out for webinars, conference sessions, this summer’s Idea Incubators, and other opportunities to meet similarly-skilled members programs or learn from more advanced members. Have specific questions or are you looking to contact members who share your same questions or concerns? Contact an NCAN staff member, and we would be happy to connect you.
  2. Lost? Get a map. Before jumping into data collection, it’s good to get organized. Spend some time with your program team and think about your program’s short-, mid-, and long-term goals. If you have a logic model already, great! If not, start working on one. For each stage of the logic model, ask what data are important, which are available, and which you can make an earnest commitment (given resources and staff time) to collecting. For more resources on logic models, visit the Data and Evaluation Toolkit.
  3. Rome wasn’t built in a day; your data capacity won’t be either. If you’re envious of other program’s robust data systems and analysis and you’re not quite there yet, it’s okay. Let that envy be a motivator, but remember it’s also okay to start small. Diligently collecting three to five key data points, understanding the research behind them and how they fit into your program, and regularly generating reports around them that are beneficial for staff members is much better than haphazardly trying to collect 25 to 30 data points that no one knows what to do with. An organization can always add more later as its comfort level grows.
  4. Good data is everyone’s responsibility. As “the data guy” at NCAN, I know that many NCAN members have an individual or team that is often looked to for quantitative analysis and reporting and data collection and tracking. But don’t fall into this trap! Everyone in an organization should bear some responsibility for the data. Whether that’s in ensuring good and timely data collection, giving feedback on which data are useful or unnecessary, or making use of (or requesting) reports and analyses, a data-driven organization needs buy-in from everyone, not just “the data guy or gal.”
  5. Students are unique. Make sure you code them that way. One of Dr. Tillery’s key pieces of advice for programs organizing a data set or starting a database was to make sure to use a unique ID. Generate an individual ID for each and every student that identifies them in a data set and connects them to their academic, financial aid, program service, and/or attendance data. This can either be a system (e.g., 2015-0001) or randomly generated (bd8931a), but it will help a lot down the road, especially as your program grows. Reminder: Social Security Numbers are not ideal for this purpose.
  6. The Common Measures Handbook, the reference you didn’t know you needed. Included in the Data and Evaluation Toolkit is a handy new resource for NCAN members. The Common Measures Handbook is a reference that examines each of the Common Measures indicators and suggests the form in which its related data are stored, data sources, technical and tracking notes, and related research. This document will evolve as new suggestions on tracking and collection are offered by NCAN members and as new research relevant to these measures enters the field. Confused about a given metric? This is the place to start.

Stay tuned for more data and evaluation-related resources from NCAN!

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