Making Sense of Data

On one of my recent hotel stays, this is what the dashboard showed inside the elevator:

Now, there are a few interesting tidbits that make this story even better. First, when I checked in I was told I was on the 1st Floor, which is AKA “L”. Second, 5 is really the second floor. Third, there are only four floors to the hotel.

I suspect to the people that work at the hotel and use the elevator daily, this number series makes complete sense. To me, well, it reminded me of those times that I have been parachuted into homeless management systems to help make sense of what is going on. In most instances, they have a collection of data points – sometimes with peculiar labels like this elevator dashboard – and an assumption that everyone knows what the starting point is. Truth is, for any information system to have meaning, it has to be easily understood and be logical.

Next week I will be in Washington, DC speaking at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference. One of the sessions I am doing with Amanda Sternberg, Susan McGee and Kimberly Walker is on performance measurement. During that presentation I will be stressing these key points:

  1. Begin the design of your performance measurement system with the end in mind. Too often organizations or communities have been collecting oodles of data without knowing why they are doing it or what it is going to tell them. I say articulate in one sentence what your organization intends to do and the change it seeks to create.
  2. Have solid strategic objectives. If you have good objectives and good measures for those objectives then you are actually testing whether the change that you want to see (say, ending chronic homelessness) is actually happening.
  3. Create a data loving culture. Believe it or not, with enough cheerleading data collection, analysis and use to improve performance can be motivating and – dare I say it – fun! I look for data to be used and performance measurement to occur top to bottom and bottom to top within an organization. I love seeing Boards use data to make decisions and staff wrestle with what information is saying to that they drive improvement.
  4. Ensure the data collection and performance measurement has value. If frontline staff don’t see themselves reflected in the system, they simply won’t use it or they will lie or a combination of both. Recent surveys we have done show that at least 1 in 5 organizations have had staff that have felt this way. Oh, and do clients see value in having their information collected and analyzed?
  5. Focus on getting better and better and better. A solid incremental approach is better than starting with a monstrous performance measurement design that fails because of its own weight. Building over time and getting better over time is entirely acceptable – and encouraged.

Iain learned to embrace his inner-nerd a long time ago, and as a result has found that between his experience as a practitioner and data-geek a fine balance can be formed to help organizations out in a meaningful way.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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