Building "data capacity" with community nonprofits

By Matthew Emeterio, Deputy Director - Data Capacity

The McCourt School Policy Innovation Lab was founded in early 2015 as a pilot project—an experiment to engage policy students and faculty in generating innovative solutions to intractable and seemingly insurmountable public dilemmas in their own back yard. Our goal is to apply design thinking to the potential redevelopment of the Anacostia waterfront in Wards 7 and 8, and develop policy solutions for equitable growth through a human-centered design framework.

We began with an initial report for DC Appleseed and the Federal City Council that identified key factors for equitable economic and social development east of the Anacostia, and will continue to focus our attention on community engagement and policy solutions for these neighborhoods. However, alongside these long-term goals, we began to seek more immediate opportunities to help local nonprofits build their capacity in data analytics in order to take advantage of our policy students’ unique backgrounds and skills. Thus, the Data Capacity project was born.

The Data Capacity Project

We knew that our main resources were policy students with strong quantitative backgrounds and an interest in urban policy solutions. We also knew that many nonprofits in the DC area are operating with limited resources, particularly staff time; many have data needs that they simply don’t have the capacity to meet.

We started reaching out to nonprofits in the community to find out how we could apply the unique skillset of McCourt students - quantitative methods, microeconomics, policy analysis - to meet the community’s needs. With the help of Rick Moyers at the Meyer Foundation[link], we connected with FairChance, an organization that helps youth-serving nonprofits build capacity. FairChance works with bi-annual “classes” of nonprofits, implementing best practices and training for management, and was planning on adding a data acquisition and analysis component. It seemed like a great fit.

Next steps

With guidance from FairChance, small teams of 2-3 students will work closely with a nonprofit in the community to thoughtfully implement data acquisition and analysis. Above all, we want to help nonprofits find sustainable, practical, and usable solutions for their data needs—we don’t want create tools that will be abandoned a month or two.

In order to do this, Data Capacity teams will collaborate the managers and staff of the organizations from the start of the process in order to develop methods for acquisition and analysis that can be easily replicated by staff going forward. Replication is important: We don’t want to create complicated tools for complexity’s sake, but engender a culture of data. We want to help nonprofits think about their organizational issues through the lens of quantification, develop ways to collect it and analyze it that use tools that they already have.

If we can do this thoughtfully and correctly, then organizations will be able to sustain that culture and to use data-driven insights as a tool to improve their services and programming in the future.