Advocating for a Better Data Ecosystem

Data can have immense power: Through skillful analysis, data can be used to create a strategic road map for mobilizing change.

Published apr. 26, 2023

Data can have immense power: Through skillful analysis, data can be used to create a strategic road map for mobilizing change. But what happens when we see inequitable long-term outcomes and don’t have the data to fully understand what’s happening?

This is where CityWorks DC, an intermediary in our Building Equitable Pathways (BEP) community of practice, found itself. The organization understood the profound inequities in economic outcomes for Black and Latinx residents in the District of Columbia, but the essential data were not available to pinpoint where and how the system was failing—or where it was working. CityWorks DC embarked on a process with partners to make the case for building a better data ecosystem to help tackle this problem.

We interviewed Dr. Erin Bibo, vice president of strategic initiatives at CityWorks DC, to understand the organization’s approach to and role in advocating for the creation of a data system to fill in those gaps.

The Need

CityWorks DC’s goal is for youth and young adults of color in the District of Columbia to have equal access to good, family-sustaining jobs. The district has the highest proportion of residents who hold college and advanced degrees per capita in the country, but that attainment rate masks profound inequities: Ninety percent of white adults age 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with only 34% of Black residents, and this gap is exacerbated by a strong correlation between higher levels of education and wealth.

“And yet,” Bibo said, “when you try to dig deeper into these inequities to find out how this happened and what we should change, you find out quickly that the city does not have a mechanism to track the early employment and earnings outcomes of the youth coming through our public education system.” CityWorks DC leaders knew they needed additional data, so they developed a plan to advocate for the collection of and access to this essential information. Rather than producing a simple one-time report or fact sheet, they intended to use data in different ways over time—through research, action groups, papers, and events. The long-term goal was to increase the community’s knowledge about early education outcomes for youth, as well as to gain broader consensus that a different data strategy was required in the long run.

Building the Case for Action

Defining the why. CityWorks DC partnered with the D.C. Policy Center to publish their first brief, The Case for Creating a Local Talent Pipeline in the District of Columbia. The brief shifts the narrative away from anecdote and toward data. Bibo said it has served two purposes: “First, it called out that we have this robust economy but that too many DC residents are not benefiting from this economic development.” The brief also used quantitative data to argue that hiring local talent is more affordable and more efficient than hiring from elsewhere. “We wanted to show that hiring local talent is good business and that the numbers prove it,” Bibo said.

Proving the need. In its second collaboration with the D.C. Policy Center, CityWorks DC published D.C. High School Alumni Reflections on Their Early Career Outcomes, a brief based on a survey of 1,200 public school alumni that was conducted in partnership with CityBridge Education and Bain & Company. The results showed that work-based learning opportunities for high school students enable them to build career assets—the set of tools, skills, experiences, and competencies that an individual has acquired or has access to that help them successfully navigate the workforce. The analysis showed statistically significant positive correlations between career assets and employment and earnings for alumni who had earned a bachelor’s degree and those who had not. It also showed that alumni’s career assets are positively associated with their feelings of fulfillment from their work, financial stability, and optimism about their future. These findings proved to be extremely valuable to leadership across the district—and showed why the education system would benefit from having consistent access to this type of data.

Offering solutions. The third brief CityWorks DC produced in collaboration with the D.C. Policy Center, Measuring Early Career Outcomes in D.C., outlines next steps for a data strategy for the city. The district systematically collects considerable amounts of data on students while they are in school, but only some schools have the capacity to follow alumni after they graduate from high school or complete postsecondary education. Existing information on income or employment is rare and mostly anecdotal. The brief highlights how other jurisdictions collect and analyze this type of data, which often involves designing P-20 (preschool through college) and P-20W (education-to-work) data systems by making better linkages between existing administrative data sets, connecting state-level data to national data, or conducting periodic surveys.

Convening leaders. To advance the recommendations in the Measuring Early Career Outcomes in D.C. brief, CityWorks DC and the D.C. Policy Center brought together leaders from the district and from jurisdictions with exemplary P-20W data systems to learn about how those systems have affected states’ investments and resident outcomes. CityWorks DC also connected district leaders with national P-20W system experts to begin developing a tailored P-20W data system plan informed by best practices in technology and governance. “It was important for the district leaders to lead the design and early decision-making process, to understand how this system could advance our collective goals, and to take ownership of moving the project forward,” Bibo said.

All of this hard work recently paid off for the partners and the district’s youth: The budget proposed for Fiscal Year 2024 by District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser includes a $1.6 million investment to establish an education-to-work data system. (The budget is now awaiting approval from the DC Council.) “We are so proud that the research and data analyses we’ve led have culminated in this significant step toward action,” Bibo said.

Creating a Culture, Not Just a Tool

CityWorks DC and its partners jointly affirmed the value of having access to and visibility into the workforce outcomes of local youth so that the community can act together and build momentum for equitable change. Instead of settling for the limited information available, they created a multipronged approach with key partners to make the case for access to better data to ensure that their actions align with their values.

In our previous blog posts about the role of data in building equitable pathways, we’ve shared how the 14 organizations that make up the BEP community of practice are centering people in their data practices and serving as both translators and advocates. We also called out gaps in our capacity to work effectively with data and set a goal for ourselves of reevaluating the primary work that data teams do.

This blog follows up on that call to action by examining and sharing CityWorks DC’s approach. The question now is, “How do we build a culture where data positively affects our daily efforts to ensure that youth experience more equitable education and workforce systems?”

Once we have the data—once we produce the fact sheets or share the presentations—it is then incumbent on us to systematically weave that data into our decision-making, change our policies and procedures, and continue to incite each other to action rather than remain content with the status quo.

It is not just a change in what we collect or measure that will lead to transformative practices. We must unite around what and why we want to change and stay committed to the hard work of acting on that shared vision.