The Data Won’t Save Us

I’m a self-professed data nerd. But there are long-held data points that have been repeated so many times that they have become conventional wisdom – or even tropes.

We plan for future prison capacity based on third grade reading rates. Source
Only 3% of youth exiting the foster care system will graduate college. One in five will experience homelessness. Source
One-third of children who grow up poor in the U.S. will experience poverty as an adult. Source
If your city has low economic mobility, it is nearly impossible to escape poverty.

If you’re plugged into any conversation about social innovation, you’ve heard these numbers, and many others like them. They are breathtakingly, shockingly awful – a stark report on the reality that many nonprofits, activists and community leaders live every day.

I think most of us like data – even if it is hard to look at – because we can make sense of it. Numbers can be studied and improved. We perceive that the ‘answers’ can be found in those numbers. And while data is driven by a desire to know more and do better, I wonder if it sometimes stunts our collective curiosity.

When I pause to consider what’s behind the data, I start to wonder: 

  • At what point does data become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How do we use these numbers to guide us rather than allowing ourselves to fall into resigned acceptance? 
  • In using data to make sense of complex issues – do we also use it to distance ourselves from the complexities of being in relationship with people?
  • How can data inspire us to imagine something new – instead of simply to predict an inevitable future?

Quantitative data is critical to the work of social good. We need it to shed light on issues, to help evaluate the effectiveness of programs and to galvanize us to action. But the temptation exists to bury ourselves in that data, to seek the answers in clean numbers and next steps.

The data won’t save us – but it can point us in the right direction.

Let it guide us towards relationships.

Data is a great starting point, but it’s no substitute for lived experience. This is one reason that Next Stage so strongly advocates for qualitative data. The data often tells us where to look – but how and why are most often rooted in conversations with people most proximate to the issue at hand. These relationships are where trust is built. And trust is where long-lasting social innovation starts.

In our report, Inside Out: The Case for Community Voice, we shared a story about a nonprofit’s mobile health unit. The unit nestled in a few locations before centering itself at a local community center. They saw very little traffic, even though the numbers suggested that this would be best supported by a mobile unit. But when the driver of the mobile unit walked into the local 7-11 and struck up a conversation with the owner, they found that the convenience store was a trusted ‘third space’ for that community and saw a lot of daily traffic. The manager offered the parking lot for the mobile unit once a week, the team accepted and use of that unit increased significantly – all because of a partnership rooted in a simple conversation.

Let’s embrace the tension.

Working on any social issue is messy and rife with competing viewpoints. It can be tempting to lean on data that feels straightforward and ‘clean,’ when conversation feels messy. The reality is that every data point represents a real, complex human with a specific viewpoint. 

Our team learned this firsthand when we did work for TreesCharlotte. Charged with developing campaign messaging, we pulled from data and our own common beliefs to develop a message we thought was obvious – ‘Everyone loves trees.” When we workshopped this with our focus groups and stakeholders, the dissent was immediate and overwhelmingly more complex. It turns out that not everyone loves trees. They sometimes fall on houses, are expensive to maintain and have impacts that are out of our control. We changed the message to a more nuanced expression, “Everyone has a tree story,” but if we hadn’t been willing to engage the tension – and the disagreement – our data would have led us far astray.

Let it inspire us to imagine something different.

Rather than self-fulfilling prophecy, let’s allow those sobering numbers to help us get curious. The temptation to bury ourselves in the research is real, but so is the risk. It’s easy to forget that the data isn’t inevitable, and that we have the ability to imagine something different for ourselves.

Our team recently collaborated on a documentary about Southside Homes that featured highly proximate organizations, including ParentChild+.  In the documentary, NC State Director Angela Drakeford speaks to the need for imagination and action when she states, “We have all the data we need. We don’t need to waste ten, twenty, thirty more years on data – then the ten, twenty, thirty years of people that contributed to that data, it’s too late to save them. I think we have enough now to think outside of the box. Let’s kick those boxes over and let’s make a difference in this community.”