Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Metrics for Healthy Communities: A tool for leaders of community health initiatives

What data exist to support and evaluate community health improvement initiatives? What limits organizations in their ability to use and cite these data? How can we readily connect downstream health outcomes to community development activities upstream?

Questions such as these motivated Wilder Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to join forces in the development of "Metrics for Healthy Communities", a website for anyone who seeks to plan, evaluate, or fund community health improvement initiatives.

Metrics for Healthy Communities aims to:

  • Build the evaluation savvy of its users by focusing attention on outcomes, not just outputs. 
  • Help shape and advance collaborative thinking about the long-term changes that well-designed community health improvement initiatives can produce, and the steps that are required to achieve them. 
  • Standardize evaluation across the field of community health improvement by promoting a common language and a common set of metrics.    

Since its initial launch in August 2015, Metrics for Healthy Communities website user data show that the desire to improve and measure the health of one’s community reaches all the way around the globe—from New York, USA to Victoria, New Zealand. The site has attracted visitors from thousands of cities in 140 countries.

Nearly 4 years later, we are pleased to announce the launch of Metrics for Healthy Communities 2.0. This newly expanded version of our Metrics website features a new user interface, more logic models, and links to the research evidence base.

Need evidence for a healthy food access program grant? Interested in how the financing of affordable housing is linked to improved health? Want to evaluate the impact of a child care center in an under-served neighborhood?

Metrics can help to answer these questions, and more!

In the beginning stages of planning a community health initiative? Visit our Get Started page to search for relevant activities and measures.

Are you a field expert looking for quick access to community health-related data sources? Search our data directory.

Wondering what in the heck is a logic model? You can learn the basics of logic models and learn how to use the site here. This site is designed to work even for folks without any formal research training.

Metrics is based on the wisdom of more than 600 practitioners who work in the fields of community economic development, housing, early childhood development, education, public health, and health care in the United States. Check out our list of site contributors -- you just might find a new cross-sector partner in your state!

So, take a look at the site. Let us know what you think!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Let’s Party (and Make Decisions) with Data!

Can reviewing data produce a lot of fun – plus insight? East Metro Pulse data parties suggest the response of “yes” to that question.

A team organized by the Saint Paul and Minnesota Community Foundations and Wilder Research (Nadege Souvenir, Nicole MartinRogers, Sheila Bell, Adam Murray, and Mary Kay Bailey) has offered partygoers at a series of events the opportunity to use the East Metro Pulse survey’s rich source of information on housing, health, education, employment, and other topics. In addition, they describe how to combine East Metro Pulse results with demographics and other information from Minnesota Compass and other reliable sources. 

Nonprofit organizations, foundations, government agencies, and anyone with a passion for improving community life – all can benefit by learning how to use data to enable better planning, evaluation, fund-raising, advocacy, and grant making. 

Making Decisions Based on Data

What constitutes the world’s most valuable resource? Data – according to The Economist.

For-profit organizations adeptly use data to understand their markets, determine the best sites for profitable operations, and develop new products. Sometimes, they even use data proactively to influence preferences to favor their products. Companies that rely on data increase productivity, perform better financially, reduce risks, and make faster decisions.

Why shouldn’t nonprofits do the same in their quest to fulfill their missions? As we in the nonprofit sector work to improve the lives of people, can we channel the world’s most valuable resource toward the good?

Another question with the response of “yes”! 

Many opportunities exist to use data. If we want to improve the quality of life of our communities, we need to take advantage of those opportunities.

Personal Data Literacy

Effective use of information requires data literacy for the people who make decisions. Most of us have good common sense that points us toward questions that have strategic and practical importance. For example:
  • What implications do changes in our community (aging, racial diversification, employment trends, etc.) have for our organization?
  • What needs do our clients have? Are those needs changing?
  • How much of the community do we reach with our work? How much do we miss?
  • Do we get the most productivity we can? How can we improve?
Answers to those questions require data. But how do we find data that have the accuracy and validity that we need? And once we find those data, how can we make sure that we examine them and analyze them correctly?

For effective leadership in today’s world, we need data literacy skills to know good data from bad data. We need skills to derive insight from a large amount of information. We need skills to portray data and communicate credible messages.

How much competency does each of us need? That depends. Using an analogy to home repairs, I know enough to bang in a nail or do a small touch up with paint. But for anything beyond a certain size, I better call a carpenter or a painter, lest my activities lead to disaster. Similarly for using data, we all have our limitations beyond which we need to call an expert. But we can learn to do a lot on our own.

Organizational Features

Capacity also depends on organizational culture and expectations. The policies of an organization should promote the use of information in support of its mission and vision. Staff should see that the organization for which they work (whether paid or volunteer) will make decisions and allocate resources based on information, not based on haphazard or ephemeral considerations. Leaders within all levels of an organization must champion the use of data and nurture their staff’s competence to use data. An organization must commit itself to quantitatively measuring its performance, if it desires to improve its performance through data-based decisions.

Effective use of data also requires organizational capacity. Capacity depends upon a suitable technical system in place to manage and report data in useable formats. For one organization, such a “system” might amount to nothing more than a laptop with easy-to-use spreadsheet software. Another organization, however, might need a complex database managed by specially trained staff. Fortunately, organizations today can find much software – some free, some at nominal cost – which enables them to analyze data in ways that would have required expensive, complex processes even just a decade ago.

Building Personal Skills by Data-Partying

That brings me back to the data party. With the tutelage of Souvenir and MartinRogers, participants learn some basic best practices about using data, dig into the East Metro Pulse data, and practice how they might use the data in their work through facilitated activities (as illustrated here). For example, in one data party that I attended we looked at how data on employment barriers, taken from the community survey, demonstrated the efficacy of having an accessible outreach worker who could directly enable job-seekers to overcome those barriers. It offered strong evidence for a data-based decision that could justify funding.

Wilder Research and the foundations we work with on Minnesota Compass, East Metro Pulse, and other initiatives seek to make data available as freely and accessibly as possible to everyone from the smallest community-based organization to the largest charitable institution. Combining program evaluation data with community survey data with demographic trends data can create a potent force for organizational improvement, social equity, and positive community change.

So, let’s party !!

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Our common destiny on the "pale blue dot"

“This is where we live. In space. On a marble fortified against bottomless blackness by a shell of air and color, fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble.”

With those words, The New York Times opened a commemorative essay about a photograph taken 50 years ago by U.S. astronauts who witnessed “earthrise”, the rising of the earth over the horizon of the moon. Human eyes had never before viewed that occurrence.

I remember the original picture, shown in the media near the conclusion of “the year that shattered America”: 1968. And I remember the insights which discussion of the photo contributed to my plans for how to spend my life.

The divisions among Homo sapiens at that time – based on race, culture, economics, religion – seemed deep and almost intractable, from an earthly perspective. The lunar vista implied something very different: a unified orb, floating through space, inhabited by interdependent organisms who shared “life,” an essence which, as far as we knew, existed nowhere else.

Carl Sagan expanded this theme after the Voyager 1 spacecraft revealed that, from billions of miles away in space, our earth appears as a “pale blue dot”: “That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Our place in space

Today, we don’t need to travel to outer space to become cognizant of humanity’s social and ecological interdependence. Economics, technological development, and communications have connected all of humanity over the past half century in ways that we can readily feel and observe. Real time communication happens intercontinentally. Events positive and negative in one part of the globe affect many or all of the other parts.

Yet differences almost nonexistent from a universal perspective – race, culture, economics, religion, and now migration status – continue to create invidious comparisons that wreck discord within the human family.

Sagan noted gravely: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

Perhaps we cannot completely avoid human conflict. When we encounter dishonesty, greed, or injustice, for instance, we may need to confront and contain it with verbal or physical force. But given our imperative to care for this planet now and into the future, it makes little sense to squabble with, separate ourselves from, and even kill, our earthly compatriots. We all need each other, to preserve the precious blue dot.

The critical pathway…

The pathway to a positive future on this speck in the universe? In his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King asserted that to “transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood” we must “evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

With love, we should do our work – whatever role we play in whatever earthly locus, small or large, that we find ourselves. We must cherish the world, our human companions, and our place in the universe.

The earthrise photo, rendering salient our common destiny as human beings, illustrates the necessity of making the quality of life on this earth as good and equitable as it can possibly be for all people.

We at Wilder Research play our part, as we undertake various types of research intended to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities. We look forward to working with others during the coming year on many projects that will address key issues, inform significant decisions about policy and funding, and enable community-serving organizations to carry out their activities more effectively.

As we enter 2019, I have hope and optimism. We can unite in love with our partners to do our best in the portion of the earth that we can influence. If others around the world similarly join together and act in their locales, we can transform the livable surface of this 510 million square kilometer rock into a habitat that sustains all human beings as we journey through the universe.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Many Thanks

Citing the Smithsonian in this morning’s Pioneer Press, Reuben Rosario described the first Thanksgiving dinner: “it was venison, corn, porridge, lobster and other shellfish. Goose, duck, now long-extinct passenger pigeons, and possibly wild turkey were reportedly on the menu in 1621 when 53 pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians broke bread together over a span of three days.”

Much has occurred on this North American continent during the four centuries since the first Thanksgiving. One can hope and imagine that the good meal which Rosario described included sensitivity, understanding, and companionship across races and cultures. A vision we should strive for our modern world to embody.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I give thanks for the opportunity to put my talents to use for the benefit of the community – in partnership with skilled colleagues at Wilder Research, partners in other organizations, public officials, and residents.

I appreciate the opportunity to work throughout the U.S. and in other countries, expanding my understanding and learning from others who hold very different perspectives. I appreciate living in a country where research can supply an independent voice, helping us all to determine the usefulness of a policy, a program, a medical treatment, or whatever.

In looking at the projects undertaken by my colleagues at Wilder Research, my reflections move quickly to gratitude for their efforts. Because of the studies they completed, we know that children will get a better start in life; older people will live in settings better attuned to their needs; communities who have experienced trauma or inequities will take positive steps forward; agencies addressing the toughest social issues will do so more effectively through our research. Many more people, communities, and organizations will do better because of our efforts with them and for them.

In some respects, we wish we did not need to do portions of the research that we carry out. Our recent survey of Minnesota’s homeless population offers a good example. We pray that someday we will tackle issues of poverty, affordable housing, and mental health care to the extent that nobody finds themselves without an adequate place to live.

Nevertheless, as long as needs exist, we give thanks that we can do this work and that we can organize efforts to make the world a better place.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Family Separation: Drive immigration policy with facts and universal values

Many advocates, editorial writers, politicians, and members of the general public say that the government should end the practice of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border, but do they really mean that?

Separating children from their parents should constitute only one of the last tools in the tool box of immigration services. In my opinion, the massive volume of such separations embarrasses the U.S. among the other nations of the world. However, as The New York Times pointed out, a large number of the public officials currently protesting immigration policies, registering their dismay about family separations, and perhaps grandstanding for publicity purposes have, for years, led agencies or branches of government which have separated children from their parents.

A history of family separation

In contrast to the roughly 2,300 to 3,000 children taken from their parents as a result of the spring 2018 crackdown at the border, the Times claims that government in the U.S. has removed upwards of 750,000 children from their parents through other legal processes. In fact, for centuries, government has separated children from their parents.

In contemporary times, government routinely separates children from their parents when it incarcerates the parents. Julie Atella in Wilder Research has studied parental incarceration, which produces negative social, behavioral, and academic outcomes for children. Government sometimes incarcerates children too, thus separating them from their parents. And the government foster care system removes children from their homes, sometimes prohibiting parental contact. A number of our studies at Wilder Research have explored foster care, locally and nationally.

Key questions behind family separation

Should the Department of Homeland Security separate children from the adults who accompany them across the U.S. border if evidence of child abuse exists? What if the adults cannot convincingly prove their legal relationship to the children? Almost all of us would probably respond affirmatively to those two questions. I do not want children to stay under the control of abusers or traffickers. But what if the adults receive a referral for criminal prosecution and must go to a detention center or jail unsuitable for an extended stay by young people? This third question might give us pause, as we ponder the nuances and circumstances of such situations, and especially as we consider whether options other than imprisonment have been fully exhausted.

The three questions above relate to the three major criteria which currently provide the formally stated rationale for separation of parents and children by the Department of Homeland Security. “Zero tolerance” increases the volume of children separated from parents based on the third criterion (unsuitability of adult detention and correction centers for young people). As the Washington Post reported, if the border services detain or institutionalize everyone who crosses the border outside of official entry portals, then ipso facto more parents will enter situations which result in separation from their children.

Some protesters have demanded the immediate cessation of the practice of separating children from their parents who have brought them across the border. But does that really make sense? Only if we don’t care about the small percentage of children being abused or trafficked.

Policies informed by facts

Wise policy development requires good information to provide a sound understanding about the status quo that we want to change as well as about the new status quo that we want to create. We should base decisions about policy on our core values combined with an objective understanding of facts.

I’ve seen this play out before on other, significant issues. Homelessness, for example. Years ago, people sincerely committed to ending homelessness – advocates, public officials, service providers, faith communities, and so on – often acted independently. When they made efforts to collaborate on creating solutions, they fell into frequent arguments over the facts about homelessness: How many people? What needs did they have? What had caused their homelessness, and what action could eliminate that cause? Wilder Research stepped in to bring representatives from different sectors to a common table, to define the problem and agree on a means to measure it. With the implementation of the statewide Minnesota Homeless Study, groups interested in meeting the needs of the homeless and in preventing homelessness could work from a common platform of information. Over time, they could track their progress.

Another current statewide effort at Wilder Research performs that same function by identifying critical gaps in services intended to meet the needs of four groups of Minnesotans: children with mental health conditions; adults with mental health conditions; older people; and people with disabilities. That work, currently in its third year, provides a credible platform of information, so that regions of the state can construct effective solutions best attuned with their population.

Immigration policies should reflect values and facts about our human family

With immigration issues we need the same, careful approach to understanding the dynamics of the current situation, so that we can effectively reform and enhance the ways we act as a nation. The future of the world’s human residents will always involve a flow of people from one part of the globe to the other. That future relies on our care. I personally am a fan of relatively open borders, with reasonable respect for national integrity and cultural diversity. As the prominent Chinese human rights activist, Ai Weiwei, noted, “Allowing borders to determine your thinking is incompatible with the modern era.” (But that subject can await another blog.)

No child deserves the cruelty of separation from their loving, caring parents. We need to craft immigration policies – indeed all social policies – in ways that transcend specific times, places, and cultures and that reflect “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. We must build policies that rest on solid, factual understanding of reality, unobscured by the escalated emotions of the moment.

Martin Luther King expressed the dream that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” My related dream would be that all children, no matter their geographic origin, stand as citizens of the world, held in esteem by all of us, valued for their character and their actions, not on the basis of nationality or the conduct of adults whom they cannot control.