Building the foundations of a data literate youth sector: what we’ve learnt so far from the Youth Investment Fund (YIF) Learning Project
This blog was written by Sarah Williams, Research and Learning Officer at the Centre. As we enter the third and final year of the Youth Investment Fund (YIF), this blog reflects on what we have learnt about the collection and management of impact data, and how these lessons can be applied across the youth sector. The YIF is a £40 million fund from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and The National Lottery Community Fund, supporting around 90 youth providers over a three-year period (2017 – 2020) to develop and expand their open access youth provision. NPC and the Centre for Youth Impact are leading the learning and impact strand of the fund.
In the early design stages of the YIF learning project, we met with the funded organisations, aiming to get a greater sense of their aspirations and areas of challenge. What emerged from these conversations was a strong sense that, whilst their data collection has advanced considerably over recent years, they often face challenges doing the data justice in terms of analysing it and really understanding what it means (which in turn will help them to take action). Data literacy – referring to the ability to derive meaningful information from data – is a fundamental yet often neglected factor in discussions about impact measurement and evaluation in the youth sector.
The existing data management landscape
Understanding and improving impact relies on appropriate and practical tools not only for collecting data, but also for storing, analysing, sharing, and ultimately using it to acquire meaningful and actionable information about a service or programme. There are a number of digital products or tools on offer that are used by youth organisations to manage their data (covering everything from collection to analysis), including customer relationship management (CRM) systems, case management systems, and specific data analysis tools (such as Microsoft Excel).
The specialisation of these digital tools towards a specific aspect of data management can result in a difficult balancing act for youth organisations, leading to frustration at the duplication of data entry tasks across multiple tools. Equally, the existing products that are on offer have been criticised for being: targeted towards the commercial sector (and therefore lacking relevance to a youth work setting); overly complicated and reliant on high levels of IT confidence (and therefore inaccessible to small or inexperienced youth organisations); and, perhaps most importantly for many, too expensive. Existing tools also have a major drawback from our perspective, which is that they are not usually designed to aggregate and share comparable data across multiple organisations.
It is as a result of all of these factors that there is no one tool or product that has been universally or even widely accepted by youth organisations as a central place to record, report, and understand their social impact. This has resulted in a fragmented data landscape, limiting opportunities to integrate, compare, and draw out wider trends, and disadvantaging many smaller organisations with limited resources.
Our approach in the YIF Learning Project
The YIF Learning Project takes a broad approach to understanding impact, focusing on five types of comparable data collected from across the cohort of around 90 grant holders (you can read more about the YIF evaluation approach here). As you can imagine, our approach generates large quantities of data, and so we have been careful not to underestimate the role and importance of digital technology. From the outset, the learning partners included an ambitious objective to provide a digital platform that enables the collection, analysis, and sharing of data for the organisations involved, all in one centralised and consistent place.
The digital platform that we are using has come a long way in its development, and it is continually being adapted and improved to optimise its value for the grant holders. There have been some challenges along the way, and we have relied on honest and constructive feedback from the users to inform the development of the tool. Based on this experience, below we highlight some core values that we believe are most important for effective data management.
We are excited to continue to support the data literacy of YIF grant holders, and to learn from their experiences to inform data-driven behaviours in the sector more widely. We believe that building the foundations of a data literate youth sector is essential for enhancing the extent to which we can meaningfully learn and improve.
We will continue to share learning from our experiences in the YIF evaluation and to openly reflect on the challenges faced along the way. If you have any questions about this blog, or the YIF evaluation approach more broadly, get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org.
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