The Transformational Power of Data

Living Cities is supporting a number collective impact initiatives to achieve transformational gains in low-income communities in educational achievement, economic competitiveness, and other areas.
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"Data! Data! Data!" cried Sherlock Holmes in the Adventure of the Copper Beeches, "I can't make bricks without clay."

Data is central to the most effective "collective impact" initiatives across the country. Collective impact is a strategy in which partners come together across sectors, targeting the same set of measurable outcomes, and coordinating their actions to make progress on those outcomes. Living Cities, a collaborative of 22 of the world's largest foundations and financial institutions, is supporting a number of such initiatives to achieve transformational gains in low-income communities in educational achievement, economic competitiveness, and other areas.

One interesting example of the power of data comes from the Road Map Project in South Seattle and South King County. The Road Map Project is a cradle-to-career partnership in the Strive Network that is trying to close student achievement gaps and double the number of students who are on track to graduate from college or earn a career credential by 2020. This is an ambitious goal, and the 2020 time horizon gives the partnership an objective to work towards. The paradox of collective impact is that a great deal of time must be spent working collectively before much visible impact can be achieved. Some shorter-term wins may be needed to build momentum and keep the partners at the table. We believe that the process of working together is the new action!

In 2011, soon after the Road Map Project's public launch, Mary Jean Ryan, the executive director of its coordinating organization, saw the sign-up deadline for a state scholarship program as a chance for an early victory for the new partnership.

Washington's College Bound Scholarship Program promises tuition (at public tuition rates) and a small book allowance for low-income students who work hard in school, stay out of legal trouble, and successfully enroll in an in-state, higher education institution when they graduate. Students must apply for the scholarship program by the end of eighth grade.

The Road Map Project encompasses seven school districts. "In the past," said Ryan, "a couple of the school districts made an effort to get the kids to sign up for the scholarship. But in most of the districts there wasn't much of an effort. We started by putting out data weekly on sign-up rates by district and school. There hadn't been a tradition of putting comparative data out. Some were saying, 'You can't do that. You're not allowed to do that -- it will ruffle feathers,' but we did it."

As the weekly data began appearing, school districts within the area, some of whom barely had the scholarship on their radar, took notice. And it wasn't just school officials. Community activists, nonprofit leaders, mayors, and housing authorities were now paying attention to the sign-up numbers and were jumping in to get more kids signed up.

Peter Bylsma, director of Assessment and Student Information Services for the Renton School District, explained that "we were seeing how other districts around us were doing. There's a sense of competition -- we don't want to look worse than them. We contacted our academic liaisons and middle schools -- we were putting out Excel spread sheets with student names and sending them to area schools... it was phenomenal."

By the time the 2011 effort ended on June 30, a record 91 percent of eligible students signed up across the Road Map Project's seven school districts, compared with 74 percent the previous year. As Mary Jean Ryan explained, the process for achieving success in the campaign was fairly simple. The districts "that had low sign-up rates either figured it out themselves or called up someone who was good at it and asked advice."

This visible success of the scholarship sign-up campaign helped provide the momentum that the Road Map Project would need over the long haul to achieve its ambitious goals. As a leader from one school district said, the campaign helped create "clarity about those benchmarks and how we move to action." It also modeled for Road Map Project participants some of the essential elements outlined in the Strive Framework for Building Cradle to Career Civic Infrastructure.

What made the data used in the sign-up campaign so powerful? For one thing, the numbers were simple and easy to understand -- how many eighth graders were eligible for the scholarship, how many were signing up, and how that compared to the previous year. For another, they were public, allowing comparison and encouraging competition. The Road Map Project purposely encompassed multiple school districts to encourage just this kind of positive competition. And finally, the numbers were tied to specific action-identifying eligible students and getting them and their families to complete the applications.

Political data superstar Nate Silver has observed that, "Numbers have no way of speaking for themselves." Which is why leaders who use data to spark change must, as the Road Map Project and the National Strive Network sites are doing, find creative and highly-focused ways to let the numbers be heard.

Jeff Edmondson is the managing director of the Strive Network. Ben Hecht is the president & CEO of Living Cities. Willa Seldon is a partner with The Bridgespan Group.