Blind Spots: Building Your Capacity by Training Others

In June, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) housed at the Urban Institute and Microsoft released a collection of resources and recommendations on extending and expanding training opportunities for staff at civic organizations and governments to help them leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities.  To illustrate the foundations, learnings, and impacts that informed the NNIP study, we are delighted to have NNIP partners from around the U.S. sharing their experiences in developing and operating their local training programs in a series of guest blogs. Below is one of these experiences. Other posts in this series are available from the Urban Institute and the Detroit,  Pittsburgh, and Seattle partner organizations.

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

Many of us in the data world — be it as spatial analysts, researchers, practitioners or professionals who work in data-centric organizations — have a great privilege to be trained to such a high level that we can claim data literacy or even data fluency, if you will. Our organizations often make a real difference in our communities and our world. We use cutting-edge technology to do our work, leverage the streams of flowing open data, and make smarter decisions that definitely include an equity lens. But all this, as good as it is, isn’t enough. Are you sick of people telling you that you aren’t doing enough? Me too.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t listen unless someone tells us we aren’t doing something right. I’m raising my hand here too. We must train others. ‘Each one teach one,’ as the saying goes.

If your organization is community based, driven by local needs, and great with data or the technology to use data, you have an opportunity to build the capacity of your residents and local partners to likewise do good things with data. If you work for a government agency that uses data to plan or evaluate, you should find ways to build the data literacy of your constituents so they can understand your decisions, advocate using data, and not have to rely on others to help them do this. If you work at a university think tank, you must recognize the power differential you have over regular residents. Training is both a way to bridge the power divide and bump up your engagement too.

If training others is not part of the DNA of your organization, ask yourself “why not?” No matter how grassroots your work may feel, providing training to your community can ground you so much more than you are now.

When Urban Strategies Council traveled across California training health advocates with California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, we certainly helped many people understand issues like geography, telling stories with maps, and putting data in context using social math. We also gained many insights about how we used language that excluded people, failed to write clearly for a broad audience, and what the data meant for the people being mapped. That’s a win for both our organization and the trainees. When we trained researchers in the school district to use mapping software, we built their capacity to think geographically, not just to use push-button tools. That led them to consider the geographical implications of much of their work in the future, and deepened our knowledge of their data systems.

As society becomes more data-rich, those of us in mission-driven organizations need to consider how this is stretching the digital-divide into a very real data-divide. Cities need residents who can use the open data that they publish, and advocates need residents to be able to push for change using both people-centered stories and data. If your city doesn’t believe that this is part of their mission, they should consider partnering with local nonprofits or networks such as Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) to do this training. Opening more data is of limited use if our communities can’t use it.

What can we all do?

Much of this is tied to funding and leadership. For funders, consider how much of your giving only supports operations and the delivery of services. Training is an investment to enhance the programs that you already fund. By requiring your grantees to include training for their staff in the use of data, you are building their capacity in important ways. This must be funded as a real cost or it won’t happen. Likewise, if you’re supporting an organization that excels in data or technology work, push them to develop a training program and help them get it funded. You can help kickstart bringing their program to scale.  

For leaders in data-savvy organizations, consider prioritizing a training program in your fundraising, or add a line item in your budget to ensure you have training as part of your operations — not as an unpaid mandate, but a central part of advancing your mission.

Fortunately, there’s a plethora of open source community training tools on data and technology, including the catalog of materials recently published by the NNIP and Microsoft partnership. You should consider opening up your trainings too! If you would like to contribute course materials to the catalog, send a note to [email protected].

Adding new activities to any organization is never easy, but taking every challenge seriously and considering how you will meet that challenge is how great leaders grow. Let’s do that, let’s get training!

Steve Spiker (Spike) is the Director of Research & Technology at the Urban Strategies Council, a regional research, advocacy and collaboration nonprofit advancing racial, social and economic equity in the San Francisco Bay Area. Spike loves data, visualization, GIS and user centered technology. He’s the co-founder of OpenOakland and speaks nationally about data-driven decision making and was chosen as one of Next American City’s Vanguard class of 2012 and honored as a White House Champion of Change in 2013.