As part of the School of Social Work at the University of Washington, Partners for Our Children (POC) works closely with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and private philanthropy to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families by using research, data and technology to inform child welfare practice and policy. Recently, I asked POC's Executive Director to tell me more about his organization's work. Below are the excerpts from my online interview of Dr. Benjamin de Haan.
Marquis Cabrera: What is the problem that your organization is working to improve?
Dr. Benjamin de Haan: The child welfare systems across the nation face major challenges and Washington State is no exception. Shrinking budgets, increased demand for services, staff turnover and the lack of data about program effectiveness hinder the child welfare agencies ability to meet the needs of at risk families in our state. At Partners for Our Children, we believe that improvements in the public child welfare system are necessary in a number of critical areas. These changes should be based on concrete evidence, not political ideology or the prevailing conventional wisdom. That's why we focus on systems research and data analysis to inform child welfare practice and policy.
Marquis Cabrera: How are you using big data to help vulnerable children, including foster children and families?
Dr. Benjamin de Haan: With today's technology, we can do so much more to help people easily access and understand data -- going beyond complex spreadsheets with rows-and-rows of numbers. Data access and analysis is a cornerstone of our work, and we continue to grow this capacity. Through a data-sharing agreement with the Washington DSHS Children's Administration, Partners for Our Children developed the Washington State Child Well-Being Data Portal -- a powerful new web tool that provides access to data about children and families who interact with the child welfare system. The portal aims to enhance transparency, build understanding and provide decision support for child welfare practitioners and policymakers. The project was made possible by Ballmer Family Giving, Stuart Foundation, Giddens Foundation, Casey Family Programs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Marquis Cabrera: What makes the Data Portal unique?
Dr. Benjamin de Haan: When we developed the Data Portal, one of our top priorities was to ensure the data was displayed in a way that was clean and easy-to-understand. Data are not useful if you don't understand what you're looking at. While there are a handful of other Data Portals that exist, we believe our portal is one of the most customizable, user-friendly and has the most robust data. We've also recently launched new updates to our portal to further improve the user experience.
Marquis Cabrera: How can the potential use of big data and data visualization techniques that are used in the Data Portal systematically improve child welfare system?
Dr. Benjamin de Haan: In the year since [the Data Portal] launched, it's become a go-to resource for many stakeholders -- everyone from policymakers to family court judges to agency staff to advocacy partners have found the tool to be valuable in helping understand how the system is working and what areas may need improvement. The Data Portal will be instrumental in implementing policies (HB 1774 and HB 1566) that passed in the 2013 legislative session in Washington State aimed at measuring the performance of the child welfare system -- specifically measuring outcomes related to educational attainment, safety, permanency and child well-being. This level of transparency is critical in understanding if the child welfare system -- and all of the providers and partners that work with it -- are effectively improving outcomes for some of the most vulnerable children in our communities.
Just as businesses use data to inform decisions, it is critical for child welfare systems to use readily available data when making decisions about practice or policy, especially when these decisions have potential to significantly affect the lives of children and families. Where is the greatest need? Who is overrepresented in the system? Where do we find the best outcomes and what is that office doing differently in order to achieve these outcomes? There are so many questions that can be addressed through data -- so this tool is a step in the right direction for child welfare in Washington State. We welcome the opportunity to speak with other states who might be considering developing their own child welfare data portal.