Data helps answer questions, it does not determine what questions should be answered

As the furor to incorporate metrics in the social sector grows, organizations are feeling the heat to get more data savvy. In principle, this is a good thing. Information should help inform decision making. But there is a big difference between information informing your agenda and allowing it to set it.

Data should inform your answers to questions, but data sets should never determine what questions you seek to answer. Every organization grapples with a myriad of decision problems, from optimizing resource allocations to increasing the social impact of interventions.

The natural role of information is to help us make more informed decisions. But data does not, on its own, answer any questions. And no data set can (or should) determine the most important issues facing an organization. Those questions should be driven by the organization itself and the people it serves.

Yet time and again I see organizations blankly asserting that they need data. Why?

A lot of organizations don’t have a great answer beyond citing the overall direction of our industry. This is a pretty lousy answer, and more importantly leads to half-baked data collection implementations that do nothing to drive organizational change or improve outcomes.

Each organization I work with, before talking about data management systems, what data points to collect, or internal processes for collecting metrics, I ask them what they do and what problems they face. Simply put, you don’t know what data you need until you know what problems you’re trying to address.

I’m afraid the glorification of trivial info-graphics and blanket mandate that organizations should be “data driven” perpetuates a wrong-headed belief that there is inherent value in data. As someone whose whole lively-hood is based in data collection and analysis, let me be as clear as I can, data only has value when it informs a decision.

As a sector, we’d be wise to focus less on the “data, data, data” mantra, and to instead engage in discussions about the issues organizations face, and where metrics can help inform better decision making. Despite the misleading glee of those who proclaim the data revolution will transform the social sector, data itself is nothing but a distraction unless it answers specific questions an organization faces.