My name is Alex Fink and I’m a Research Fellow in Youth Studies at the University of Minnesota. I’m a developmental evaluator with youth-serving organizations. I’ve watched the last five years as many organizations are asking youth workers to collect more and more data about program participants. As one worker I spoke to said, “We know where kids are and what they are doing from when they wake up to when they go to sleep.”
More and more, this data is analyzed by machines – algorithms that “learn” by finding patterns. Such databases are becoming an easy sell – they track clients and provide fast data analysis that “replaces” some of the work evaluators used to do. They even provide recommendations for program improvement. This is “big data” entering the realm of evaluation.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all this data. What really are we collecting? Who uses it, and what for? What role do evaluators have when all this data is processed by machines? What difference does it make – for the organization, partners, funders, and most importantly, for young people? I’ve posed the latter question to many youth I’ve collaborated with and gotten some pretty consistent answers:
Did they know all this data was collected about them? No.
Do they feel it has an impact on their lives? Yes – they’ve got a lot of people “in their business” in ways that often feel overbearing.
What do they want instead? Relationships with trustworthy and caring adults. Every young person I’ve talked to said they alone possessed the “big data” about themselves – data a machine would never know. It was data like, “the reason I’m doing poorly in school is because my teacher is racist.” Contrary to popular stereotypes, every one of these youth said they wanted more adults to know about these things. But they didn’t trust most adults to understand or care.
Lessons Learned: Evaluators have the opportunity to help organizations see the importance of developing and maintaining relationships with young people (and all clients). “Getting more data” is a big trend, but as we all have experienced, an interview will tell you a lot of things a survey cannot. Evaluators can help organizations hold true to their missions when it comes to collecting data.
Evaluators can also help show the complexity of the lives our clients often lead, raising stories that are otherwise missed in the quantitative data. This task will become more important than ever as these stories are increasingly folded into the categories that databases make available to organizational users.
Hot Tip: When working with an organizations’ clients, try asking a few questions that give clues about the data that might be useful for the organization to collect. Things like, “What could someone at this organization know about you that would help them make your life better?” and “What would someone here have to do for you to trust them enough to tell them that kind of information?”
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