Creating Impactful and Efficient Systems | Our Thoughts – Josef Fischer
For this month’s Our Thoughts, Digital Products Lead Josef Fischer reflects on the process of building the Centre's Data Portal, and how collaborative and solution-focused thinking is key in creating impactful and efficient systems.
Having spent many months engrossed in building our data portal, I sat down to reflect on the process so far and what I’ve learned. Once the novelty of writing in words rather than code had subsided, it occurred to me that I could tell the story of the portal’s inception. We wanted to create a portal that captured, visualised and measured young people’s socio-emotional development and their ‘mental’ engagement within youth provision. From a digital perspective, this sounds straightforward enough. But often, when we envision the process of building portals or platforms, we picture it as a linear journey. Project kick-off meetings, brainstorming catchy labels, colleagues armed to the hairline with Post-it notes to stick on walls, before we all emerge from the meeting singing ‘we’ve got this’, and I neatly code it up for a big reveal of the finished product.
Doesn’t sound realistic, does it? Truthfully, our portal didn’t have an official ‘beginning’. Its need was made apparent through the reality of our day-to-day project work. I wanted to reduce time cleaning data to spend more time on analysis. Cleaning involves removing duplicates, combining rows where users had mistakenly entered information, taking out responses that were not defined in the response options and so on. This can be a laborious process, eating away at valuable thinking time to draw real insight and learning. It made me wonder how many other practitioners were grappling with this same issue. We all need efficient systems that free us up to do the work that matters: systems that alleviate the burden of manual data collection, standardising, and cleaning, so that we are able to obtain meaningful insight into our impact and quality and act on it. With this in mind, we ensured that our portal was not only able to better process submitted data, but offer visually compelling and digestible information, so that our team and our users spent less time deciphering and more time acting on insights.
The work on our portal continued with coding in our ‘Adult Rating of Youth Behaviour’ measurement tool, which allows staff to report on the socio-emotional development of young people at the beginning of their time on a programme and at the end. We trialled this with a few organisations, before adding our ‘Youth Engagement Scale’, a measurement tool that captures young people’s mental engagement whilst attending provision, and our ‘Youth Rating of Socio-emotional Skills’, where young people self-report on their socio-emotional skills across six domains of outcomes set out in the Outcomes Framework 2.1. By design, these measures offer a unique view of youth work as a process. The tools explore the socio-emotional development of young people at the beginning and end of their time in provision, illustrate how engaged young people feel within their provision, and how young people themselves consider their own development journey in these environments. Because these measurement tools can be diversely applied, we can build data structures that allow all our users to compare their data and findings against others. Some may shy away from this, but comparative data can be powerfully illuminating, providing us with an indication of how our peers and cohort are doing and enabling us to see normative benchmarks emerging. Though each young person’s journey and the environment in which they experience it is unique, comparative data provides valuable learning for us all on where we can offer more support or review structures that may not be working, to ensure our programmes and environments are continuously supporting positive growth for all young people.
I mentioned earlier the idea of a linear journey. Our portal wasn’t dreamt up in its present (still evolving) form in one meeting. Far from it. Through many conversations with practitioners, partners, commissioners and funders, a plethora of ideas emerged, all steeped in challenges we have encountered whilst working with data. It’s tempting (and possibly easier) to build first and seek feedback later. However, reflective processes that leave room for collaboration, inspiration, and challenge are the best way in ensuring that your build is fit for purpose and valuable in practice. Instead of starting with a finished product in mind, we were able to listen and act on the ideas and feedback of others, and build our portal to address these thoughts and concerns. This may seem unruly, but untidy processes that help us to build better things together are always better than neat, insular work producing outputs of less value. It is necessary. After all, we are only as good as those around us – why should our data systems be any different?