Honoring the Humanity in the Data

I recently attended an Evaluate for Change workshop called Taking the Fear out of Data. The workshop created space for reflecting on how to use evaluation processes to create a culture of learning in one’s organization and in the wider sector. The title of the workshop reflects Evaluate for Change’s belief that social sector professionals fear data. The workshop was about getting people comfortable with data and the idea of data—reducing fear in human beings who freeze, fight, or flee in the face of data. My contribution to the Taking the Fear out of Data workshop to help create a culture of learning was to encourage the other participants to ask their colleagues, “What do you want to learn?”; listen to their answers; then use data to help facilitate that learning. The workshop uncovered useful strategies to introduce data without triggering fear in one’s colleagues. But, my inner grammarian noticed that if taken literally, the meaning of the workshop title, Taking the Fear out of Data, could refer to removing the fear data might feel. The grammatical inconsistency made me consider if fear can be found in data. A datum is simply a piece of information. Can a piece of information emote?

Certainly, qualitative data holds a host of emotions within the stories and narrative fragments collected through interviews, participatory observation, and other ethnographic methods. But, when I recently walked a colleague through a quantitative data collection tool, she helped me see how even a single dot on a data visualization is imbued with the subjectivities of the respondent. My colleague, who identifies as a woman of color, told me she was moving her data point away from a specific answer because she is aware of the biases that structural racism engender, even when looking at a so-called neutral dataset. In this case, if data could emote, it might fear being read the wrong way, out of context, through the lens of the researcher rather than the intentions of the respondent. Taking the fear out of data then becomes a process of honoring the very human origins of each data point even after it’s been aggregated with hundreds of others. It is a process of deep listening that necessarily investigates collection methods and tools.

In Grantmakers in the Arts’ March podcast “Innovations in Data Collection” Wendy Hsu touches briefly on the power of meaningful data collection through participatory research methods and community archival projects. Like Hsu, I believe that data is never neutral and as researchers we need to share the process of our work and not just share the products of our work. Evaluators also need to find more ways to bring human exchanges to both the processes and the products of evaluation. Sharing the processes of our evaluative work creates opportunities for our colleagues who fear data to better understand the inquiries that the data came out of. Sharing the products of evaluation with the people who supplied the information creates opportunities for us to listen to the human origins of the data and understand what the data might fear if it could emote.

Evaluate for Change speaks to an audience that works mostly in the social sector—mission-driven people and organizations who are striving to create change for the public good. This blog entry is, in part, an appeal to social sector evaluators to honor the humanity in the data. As our evaluative practices contribute to creating a culture of learning, we need to keep generating better questions and listening attentively to what emerges. Ethical processes require deep listening.

Dr. Chikako Yamauchi is the Research and Evaluation Manager at EmcArts. The opinions expressed are her own, but she owes a debt of gratitude to her colleagues Maura Cuffie and Denise Shu Mei for conversations that informed her thinking while writing the above entry. EmcArts works alongside individuals, organizations, and communities as they take on their most complex challenges. EmcArts is taking a developmental evaluation approach to learning from and about its programs. Read Jamie Gamble’s introduction to developmental evaluation HERE.

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