Working in research practice partnerships with community youth development organizations, the Gardner Center promotes data use for solving problems and developing habits of inquiry. Our work is rooted in communities and driven by a set of principles that include trusting relationships, equity of youth outcomes, data-informed decisions, and forging connections across silos. We are interested in shifting the norms and behaviors associated with data for compliance to data for strategy. The Gardner Center is committed to building capacity through ongoing partnerships and projects that:
- use data to drive action;
- inquire deeply into “what works for youth” in and across settings and systems;
- embed youth development as a city-wide approach to create thriving environments for youth; and
- facilitate the creation of shared frameworks to guide planning, decision making, and ongoing capacity building.
The Data Use Continuum
Over many years, we have observed a continuum, or series of phases, which youth-serving organizations traverse while developing the skills to more confidently use data to support strategic decision-making, and, ultimately, action.
PHASE I. Uncoupling Data from Compliance: Partners are engaged in work with data and information systems largely for compliance purposes. Often, they are mandated by an external party to do so. The drive to collect data is for accountability and not for improvement. No specific research questions are guiding the data collection or use.
PHASE II. Connecting Data to Strategy: Partners are collecting data but not yet in a manner that is systematically or necessarily tied to the goals and strategies of their organizations. We have observed wide variation at this stage as organizations mature in their understanding of their purpose and the need for data to support learning and growth.
PHASE III. Using Data for Learning and Improvement: Partners have developed logic models and/or theories of change, and their data work is clearly connected to their articulated goals, strategies, and outcomes. They have determined that they can use data to inform and improve their work. They look to data to help address more sophisticated, nuanced questions. Engaging potential third-party research partners is critical to this phase.
Understanding this continuum has helped us to be better collaborators. Our goal is to build capacity, supporting our partners at youth-serving organizations to ask researchable questions, interpret findings, and connect their own work to broader literature and experiences in the youth development field. Employing the data use continuum as a guiding tool, Gardner Center researchers are able to approach our joint work with a solid awareness of its intricacies.