What You Can Do to Empower the Public and Nonprofit Sectors with Data and Technology

| Kathy Pettit, Senior Research Associate at The Urban Institute

At Microsoft, we partner with civic organizations and governments to create new ways to leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities.  We see first-hand both the opportunity for these capabilities to help groups achieve more effective outcomes and the challenges facing busy non-profit and public sector staff in gaining the skills they need to strategically select, design and use key tools such as data analytics, visualizations, and tech infrastructure.  That is why we joined with the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) at the Urban Institute to study the landscape of Training on Data and Technology to Improve Communities.  Today, we welcome Kathy Pettit of the Urban Institute as a guest blogger to describe the project and the newly-released resources and recommendations for how we all can work together to extend and expand these sorts of impactful training opportunities. Other posts in this series are available from the Detroit,  Oakland,  Pittsburgh, and Seattle partner organizations. 

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

CivTech St. Louis, a collaboration of nonprofits, local governments, universities, and local technologists, launched a new open source website and text reminder system enabling residents to look up their own municipal tickets and warrants and easily access information about how to resolve or contest them. In Boston, the City of Boston’s Division of Youth Engagement and Employment in partnership with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council revamped the city’s algorithm for matching students to summer jobs incorporating applicant job preferences developed by youth and alternatives for youth living farther from job opportunities.

These are just two examples among many efforts around the country to apply data and technology in innovative ways. But we need to equip all our local nonprofits and governments with the knowledge and confidence to use data and technology to identify community priorities and design effective responses. The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) and Microsoft’s Civic Technology Engagement Group believe training is a critical part of the efforts to accomplish this goal. Based on the lessons from our year-long joint project, we now offer a new set of resources to help local communities expand training on data and technology for local governments and nonprofits, including a brief summarizing the study results, a guide on designing and executing training, and a catalog of training materials.

A wide variety of organizations are well suited to providing training: libraries, applied university centers, local government agencies, coalition leaders, nonprofit support organizations, and civic technology groups. But many other players –  government agency and elected leaders, nonprofit executives, and funders – also have a role in ensuring that the people working to improve our communities have the skills they need to perform their jobs successfully. We suggest four ways that local and national actors can improve the quality and quantity of training and thus increase the application of data and technology in public and nonprofit planning and programs.

  • Expand the training available to government and nonprofit staff: More organizations – libraries, university centers, nonprofit support organizations, civic technologist volunteers, public agencies, or local data intermediaries like NNIP partners – should provide training. In-person classes enable participants to gain hands-on experience with data and technology while connecting with others interested in continuous learning. Our new guide for organizations interested in providing training offers steps for getting started.
  • Foster opportunities for sharing training materials and lessons: We need to encourage more regular exchange among trainers within a community and across the country. We have created a catalog with descriptions and materials from selected trainings. Other networks and interest groups should curate tailored materials for specific audiences. To advance the field of training, we also need to foster more interaction among trainers through virtual and face-to-face gatherings.
  • Identify allies who can enhance and support local training efforts: Even organizations that do not provide training directly have critical parts to play in expanding training opportunities and participation. For example, foundations should provide financial support and encouragement for developing and attending training for their grantees. Government and nonprofit leaders can create work environments that value efforts to improve staff data and technology capabilities. Changing Culture by the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence shares ways to influence a government agency’s culture to have staff become more adept with using data. Collected Voices from the Nonprofit Technology Network offers guidance to nonprofits on building a culture of using data.
  • Assess the local landscape of data and technology training: Local actors across sectors should understand their community’s capacity to employ data and technology, including gaps in training on these skills. This information can help localities prioritize the audiences and topics for training. Our guide offers suggestions and a sample interview protocol on how to assess training opportunities and needs based on the experiences of the NNIP partners.

Today’s communities are facing many challenges with the prospect of more limited resources from the state and federal government. Leveraging data and technology can help our public and nonprofit sectors make more informed decisions and adapt to changing circumstances. Progress on this can be made more quickly and in more places if we invest in training development and implementation and create opportunities to share promising practices from around the country.

Our project highlights how community training delivered in person helps to ensure it is tailored for local audiences and context. Over the next month, you will hear from NNIP partner organizations in Detroit, Oakland, and Pittsburgh on how they are helping to meet the need for training on data and technology in their communities.

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